The New Orleans of early-’60s civil-rights battles, with its assortment of right-wing racists, do-gooders, pot-smoking hipsters, and con artists, gave Stone the material for his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, published in 1967. “Stone’s approach to the sociopolitical situation is utterly oblique,” Bell writes. “With the characters paying little attention to it, it simply builds itself out of inchoate dark matter, like the late-afternoon New Orleans rainstorms.” A Hall of Mirrors traces a geometry that Stone, a master of novelistic architecture, would go on to use many times: He intercuts among three protagonists who drift along on events, almost without agency, sliding downward but struggling toward some meaning that they never reach, gathering great narrative momentum as they converge on a plane of social tension that’s headed toward an apocalypse.
Rheinhardt, a “juicehead” and former clarinet virtuoso who has squandered his talent out of self-destructive spite, arrives in New Orleans by Greyhound in the aftermath of Mardi Gras. He stumbles into a job as an announcer for an ultraconservative radio station, fabricating inflammatory reports that today ought to be called fake news. The station owner, a plutocratic bigot named Bingamon, explains to Rheinhardt: “People can’t see because they don’t have the orientation, isn’t that right? And a lot of what we’re trying to do is to give them that orientation.” Bingamon’s purpose is to incite hatred and start a race war that will crush black people’s political aspirations. Rheinhardt is too lost in private despair to object.
He falls in with Geraldine, a young drifter from West Virginia—one of Stone’s few successfully realized female characters. For a time, Geraldine and Rheinhardt make a wounded pair in the French Quarter, until he can’t bear the intimacy and drives her away. These scenes are full of a strange pathos, as when Rheinhardt notices a cigarette burn on Geraldine’s stomach and says,
“You been ill used. You’re a salamander.”
“You’re a salamander because you walk through fire and you live on air.”
Geraldine closed her eyes.
“I wish,” she said.
The third protagonist is their upstairs neighbor, Morgan Rainey—a disturbed seeker after “humanness,” his own and others’, who goes door-to-door conducting surveys in black neighborhoods and becomes the unwitting tool of Bingamon’s scheme to gut the welfare rolls.
These three meet their separate fates in the novel’s long climax, Bingamon’s Patriotic Revival, a stadium rally in which a staged riot spins out of control. Stone was a realist—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos were among his influences—and a lifelong believer in the moral valence of fiction; he shunned the surrealism and metafiction of his contemporaries John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon. But A Hall of Mirrors, like much of Stone’s other work, ends in a hallucinatory spasm of altered consciousness and rhetorical excess. Geraldine, stoned and desperate, searches the stadium in vain for Rheinhardt, who is onstage, wasted, preparing to conduct an imaginary symphony orchestra. On cue, he exhorts the crowd of thousands with a perversion of virtuosity that displays Stone’s power to combine irony and terror:
“Let us consider the American Way … The American Way is innocence,” Rheinhardt announced. “In all situations we must and shall display an innocence so vast and awesome that the entire world will be reduced by it. American innocence shall rise in mighty clouds of vapor to the scent of heaven and confound the nations! Our legions, patriots, are not like those of the other fellow. We are not perverts with rotten brains as the English is. We are not a sordid little turd like the French. We are not nuts like the Kraut. We are not strutting maniacs like the gibroney and the greaseball! … When your American soldier fighting today drops a napalm bomb on a cluster of gibbering chinks, it’s a bomb with a heart. In the heart of that bomb, mysteriously but truly present, is a fat old lady on her way to see the world’s fair. This lady is as innocent as she is fat and motherly. This lady is our nation’s strength. This lady’s innocence if fully unleashed could defoliate every forest in the torrid zone … In her mind there is but a single thought, and it is this: ‘Iowa’s never so pretty as in May.’”
Rheinhardt’s performance is a fun-house mockery of the kind of political theater that has lately risen from underground to occupy the main stage of American life. Years later, Stone said of his first novel: “I had taken America as my subject, and all my quarrels with America went into it.” They were a lover’s quarrels, equal parts longing and disillusionment, held in a tension that never broke either way. Morgan Rainey’s blighted idealism is as central to Stone’s vision as Rheinhardt’s fluent nihilism is.