Book Review: Damascus Gate by Robert Stone

I’m not sure how to rate this book. I ran into it by accident when I read that Robert Stone had died. I’d never heard of Mr. Stone, but the obituary talked about his work and made me very interested. In particular, it said he’d written a thriller set in the Middle East, Damascus Gate, which I was very anxious to read. According to the reviews, which were very good, the last hundred pages in particular were so gripping you couldn’t put it down. Robert Stone’s work had been nominated for a number of prestigious awards. I really looked forward to picking it up.

That was the only thing that kept me going through the first couple of hundred pages. I found it so boring that I skipped through pages, which was problematic because I ended up not knowing what was going on. I eventually had to find a plot summary on line so I could figure out what had happened while I wasn’t paying attention. I’m not sure why I didn’t stop, except that it’s always been hard for me to stop a novel once I’ve begun. The only two exceptions I can recall are Ulysses, which I got about a hundred pages into without figuring out what was going on, and Atlas Shrugged, which in my opinion may be the worse novel ever written.

But back to the work at hand. There were about sixty pages at the end and a few scattered around the second half of the novel that were fantastic. Very well written, a lot going on, kept you turning pages. The problem was the rest of the book. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind set-up and I’m not looking for a steady stream of car chases followed by sex scenes. While reading I found myself comparing Damascus Gate to one of my favorite novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That novel also starts out with a lot of character development and could be fairly described as not having anything happen in the first hundred pages, but somehow I find that one interesting enough to have read it a number of times.

The character and plot development in Damascus Gate didn’t do that for me. Unlike Jim Prideaux in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Christopher Lucas in Damascus Gate irritated me more than anything else. For some reason I didn’t find him, or any of the other characters, at all interesting. This is a little strange because they all have interesting resumes. Ex-Soviet spies, religious fanatics, nightclub singers, aid workers. If you read a list of the characters you’d think they’d be fun to read about. For some reason though, they bored me to tears.

Robert Stone’s most famous work is Dog Soldiers. I’m probably going to try that one at some point, but not soon. I can’t honestly recommend Damascus Gate. The parts that are good are great, but they are too few and far between.

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