- Hall of Mirrors
- by Robert Stone
- Publisher – Houghton, Mifflin
- Copyrights – 1964, 1966
- 409 pages
Rating – 6.5/10
Summary – Hall of Mirrors is Robert Stone’s first attempt at The Great American Novel. Set in New Orleans in the 1960s, the novel centers on three seekers who become enmeshed in a toxic brew of right-wing politics, racism, and religion. Stone falls short of his ambitions, but there are some nice passages and there’s plenty of food for thought.
Review – Robert Stone uses 1960s New Orleans as the setting for Hall of Mirrors, which is an interesting “big novel” about America’s obsessions.
Seekers Without Maps
3 people are at the core of Hall of Mirrors –
1) Rheinhardt is the focus. He’s an alcoholic, itinerant disc jockey who drifts into a homeless mission at Hall’s beginning. Soon, he finds himself working again as a d.j. At a radio station (WUSA) that is enmeshed in nefarious, right-wing plots.
Rheinhardt is largely bereft of hope. But Stone provides a flashback that reveals that Rheinhardt was once a promising clarinetist who auditioned at Juilliard –
“…they said that every five years or so he [Somlio, the man for whom Rheinhardt is auditioning] might take a clarinet.
It was a bright October day, the room was full of sunlight. Somlio, pale and fat, came in with his four musicians, treacherous and bitter little men, they said, who liked to lead you down the glory road and then leave you impaled on a transition, drowning in spit and clinkers. Somlio had to hear all his woodwinds in company with that quartet.
One by one – first and second fiddle, viola, cello – they seated themselves on folding chairs and set up, while Rheinhardt nervously tootled and kept changing reeds. Then Somlio gestured from his seat and the swings welled with what seemed a sudden violence and went into the opening bar of the theme, the ten notes that sounded like “East Side, West Side.” And Rheinhardt, fifteen seconds from his ordeal, looked across the street to the rocky vacant lots where the Harlem housing projects were going up and little Puerto Rican kids were throwing rocks at a cement truck, turned, feeling nothing at all, picked up on G and performed the first arpeggio.
Then came the repeat passages, the first line over again and the strings came in pure symmetry and logic – the fiddles working down, the cello and viola rising, concerned only with themselves, ignoring him – and Rheinhardt sounded again his lonely, unregarded arpeggio that floated unwelcome above the richness of the strings. But in the third line, he could feel them yielding, playing gently with his theme, then taking it up, and he and the strings were rising and falling together in bright harmonies; he making love to the strings, cowing them, fondling them, they ignored him no longer.
So it turned out that morning that just above the barrier of form was a world of sunlight in which he could soar and caper with an eagle’s freedom, rule and dispense passion, where his breath was the instrument of infinite invention, yet not a pause was lost – not a note. He was not going to make any mistakes that morning; he found himself in control as he had never before been. Because there was perfection in this music, something of God in this music, a divine thing in it – and the hungry coiled apparatus in Rheinhardt was hounding it down with a deadly instinct, finding it again and again.
By the time they came to the trio in the Menuetto third movement where Mozart had taken out the clarinet to give old Stadler, who was playing fo his pension, a minute or two of rest, Rheinhardt, standing with his eyes closed, fingers trembling on the stops, felt the silence of the room behind the strings and felt the strings themselves loving and missing him. He opened his eyes to see the cellist bent low over his strings; the man’s eyes were bright with love, and as his fingers moved tenderly across the board his upturned wrist displayed the five blue characters where they had taken that caressing arm and tattooed on it – DK 412. Just before Rheinhardt picked up on his next note the old man had turned expectantly toward him and with the rapture of and tenderness still shining in his face and Rheinhardt had caught that transfigured look and held it, and begun again.
At the end, in the final passage allegro alla breve he could feel himself – the brain , mouth, diaphgram, lungs and fingers of the musician Rheinhardt fused together in a terrible invincible unity. And as he and the strings came down together in the last lovely tremolo, he had thought – how beautiful, how beautiful I am!
Joyful and trembling, he had put his axe away and gone over to shake hands with the quartet, hoping that they they would say something, but they did not – they smiled and nodded and packed their instruments and went.
“Tell me again,” Somlio had said, looking at his own fingernails, “what name?”
“Bien, Rheinhardt,” Somlio had said casually and shrugged. “Of the first. Of the first excellence. We accept Rheinhardt” (Pp. 45-47).
But for the part about “making love to the strings,” I think that the passage is perfect, beautiful. What makes it remarkable in Hall is that it stands in such stark contrast to almost everything else the reader learns about the hard-bitten Rheinhardt. The passage redeems Rheinhardt, makes the reader care about him.
2) Morgan Rainey – seems to be Rheinhardt’s opposite (but the reader eventually realizes that the two men are opposite sides of the same coin). A young Harvard graduate from Louisiana, Rainey has been to Venezuela to work in its slums. In New Orleans, Rainey takes a job interviewing welfare recipients and gets a harsh lesson in the real world. Often, Rainey comes across as the classic liberal do gooder – pure of heart, but ineffectual.
In one scene, Rainey and Rheinhardt interact in a French Quarter apartment. Their dialogue reveals each man’s struggles and Hall’s themes –
“What happened to you, Rheinhardt?” Rainey asked.
“Rainey,” Rheinhardt said, “are you so childish-foolish that you don’t know a prick when you see one?”
“I know a prick when I see one. I don’t believe you’re such a prick that you’re … that you have no humanity. I don’t know why.” He looked about him as though for escape. “If I thought that I wouldn’t have asked you to help me. As far as I can see you’re the only one who can tell me what I need to know” (p. 251).
Ostensibly, the two men are discussing the right-wing plots emanating from WUSA, where Rheinhardt works. But a different interpretation would be that the older Rheinhardt has seen things about life that Rainey feels that he should know.
3) Geraldine – If Rheinhardt and Rainey are mirror images, Geraldine is unique. At the beginning, she gets a car ride to New Orleans with a Mexican laborer. She is on the run from a violent lover in Galveston who sliced her face, leaving her scarred. Upon arriving in New Orleans, various men approach her and try to use her sexually (which is exactly what one would expect in Stone’s heartless world). Eventually, Geraldine meets Rheinhardt on the job and the two become lovers.
In comparison with Rheinhardt and Rainey, Geraldine’s wounds are both literal and psychic. And yet, in contrast with the two men, she never seems to have dreamed “big dreams.” Geraldine’s “everywoman” persona makes the reader like her all the more, cheering for her success.
Unfortunately, Geraldine never quite works in Hall. She isn’t woven into the plot as well as are the two male characters. Her scenes are good, but the plot threads involving Geraldine seem forced, almost as though Stone felt that he had to include a female lead but didn’t know what to do with her character.
3 R’s – Themes
To me, Hall centers on three themes –
1) Religion – Stone’s view of religion is elitist – it’s just a sham, used to fleece people and keep them in line. Stone handles religion unimaginatively in Hall; there’s a never a moment that makes the reader think “Ah! I never thought of it that way.”
Typical of Hall’s treatment of religion is a scene at Hall’s beginning. Shortly after Rheinhardt arrives in New Orleans, he spends the night in a homeless shelter and runs into an old acquaintance from New York. The man is a religious huckster who is on the run for various unsavory actions.
2) Race – is a topic on which Stone had more-interesting insight. In the novel, Rainey ventures into the black community, conducting a survey of welfare clients. (According to online sources, Stone had a similar job – helping collect information in New Orleans for the 1960 U.S. Census).
Rainey meets two, very-different black men. Lester Clotho is an entrepreneur who seems to know everyone in his neighborhoood. Stone makes it clear that – without Clotho – the ingenuous Rainey would be in deep trouble. The reader senses that there is much that Clotho does not tell Rainey.
While working with Clotho, Rainey meets Roosevelt Berry, a younger black man who works as a journalist at a black-owned newspaper. Berry dislikes Clotho, seeing him as an Uncle Tom. Rainey is intrigued by Berry’s hard-edged politics.
In Clotho and Berry, Stone crafts two characters who represent the old and new approaches to civil rights that would soon divide the black community in the 1960s.
3) Right-wing politics – the first two themes are “ingredients” in the third. As the three protagonists attempt to find their way, each falls into a sinister right-wing plot to start a race riot at a rally in a New Orleans stadium.
The idea is interesting, but Stone doesn’t quite pull it off. He breaks the book’s realism by mocking the right wingers as a bunch of cartoonish villains would have been at home in an old Batman episode. At the rally, Rheinhardt’s old acquaintance, the disgraced preacher from New York, offers the following prayer –
“Lord, let your divine protection descend on this small embattled band of Christians. Sustain us in the face of the Darkness Outside. For we know that beyond our little circle of Light in the night’s gloom there throbs a black and evil world of subversion and intrigue which constantly threatens our innocence and wholesomeness to strike down the foulness that rises daily at our feet as we pursue the righteous way. Defend us from the contamination which suffuses our newspapers and magazines, our libraries and so called institutions of learning, which lurks disguised as mere frivolity in our entertainments. Keep us as we are – simple upright men unconfused by the devious rhetoric of ever-present anti-Christ. Bless our innocence Lord, let it ascend heavenward as a sweet odor in tribute to Yourself. Protect and arm us before the black forces of blackness who daily blacken our clear path with their black menace. Amen.” (P. 335).
I think that the passage is funny, and it brings together Stone’s themes – religion, race, and right-wing politics. The problem with Hall’s conclusion is that – after 300 pages of fairly-serious material, Stone lets the book become a farce. The shift in tone is jarring and largely unsuccessful. Stone wasn’t even thirty-years old when he published Hall and perhaps he was still maturing both as a person and as a writer.
While the ending isn’t satisfying, it’s not an abject failure, either. Stone ties a lot of threads together. However, he also makes clear that – in our cruel world – any successes are likely to be rare, temporary and uninspiring.
Leaving New Orleans
If you’re a writer, trying to write The Great American Novel is like trying to find Nirvana – you know you’re going to fall short, but you can’t help making the effort. Indeed, Stone would try again with his 1974 novel Dog Soldiers, which more successfully captured the zeitgeist. (Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award and was adapted into the 1978 movie Who’ll Stop the Rain?). For those interested in Stone’s work, Dog Soldiers is the place to start.
As for Hall, it’s a middling success, a bleak look at beaten people who have given up or are in the process of giving up. But Stone had his finger on America’s pulse and the issues that he explored still resonate today.