Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Paul Wilner Picks A Flag for Sunrise

By Paul Wilner

What is your favorite National Book Critics Circle finalist of all time? The first NBCC winners, honored in 1975 for books published in 1974, were E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, fiction), John Ashbery (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, poetry), R.W.B. Lewis for his biography of Edith Wharton, and Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory, criticism). In 2014 the National Book Critics Circle prepares to celebrate nearly forty years of the best work selected by the critics themselves, and also to launch the new John Leonard award for first book. So we're looking back at the winners and finalists, all archived on our website, and we've asked our members and former honorees to pick a favorite. Here's the twenty-fifth in our latest in six years of NBCC Reads surveys.

I have to put in a word for Robert Stone’s A Flag For Sunrise, a 1974 NBCC finalist (mystifingly, the top award went to Rabbit Is Rich, by Updike, a writer to the manner, but not the matter, born).

Stone’s novel, set in the fictional country of Tecan, which bears a not-so-coincidental resemblance to El Salvador, is the work of a writer at the top of his trade. His lost characters–the whiskey priest Father Egan, a burnt out anthropologist named Frank Holliwell, reluctantly recruited to inform the American authorities on church support for native uprisings, the hopelessly idealistic nun Sister Justin Feeney–speak in hushed, impassioned tones, a verbal poetry whose heightened cadences only Stone could pull off. Conrad is echoed here, along with Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, who provides the author with the title to accompany an unspeakably sad denouement.

You leave the book shaken, impressed less with God’s grandeur than with the depths of human folly. As Egan preaches to the hippie rabble gathered near his mission, “There aren’t angels…There’s none of that. Thrones. Dominions. All that business–it’s rubbish. But there’s life. There’s the Living among the dead. I mean, you can’t ever quite see it, can you? You’d hardly know it was there, but it has to be, doesn’t it? It’s only mislaid.”

Stone’s vision is ultimately forgiving. But not much.

Paul Wilner is a veteran newspaperman whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, Zyzzyva, and many other publications. He currently teaches journalism in San Francisco.