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Robert Stone: A Hall of Mirrors

Stone wrote this novel, based on his experience in New Orleans, including a short stint as a census-taker, like his hero Morgan Rainey. However, though this cynical novel may be about New Orleans, there is no doubt that it is about the United States as a whole. Rainey may be the hero but Rheinhardt is the main character and it is he whom we start with. He has had a checkered career, primarily in the music business, when he drifts into New Orleans. His propensity for alcohol does not help him get anywhere in New Orleans and he ends up on skid row. It is there that he meets an old acquaintance, Farley the Sailor, who helps him get a job in a chemical factory, run by Matthew Bingamon, a right-winger. It is at the factory that he meets Geraldine Crosby, another drifter, whose main earnings are from prostitution. The pair get together and start an affair. Rheinhardt manages to get a job as a DJ on Bingamon’s radio station, though he has to read out right-wing propaganda.

Living in the same apartment building is Rainey, who is employed as a census-taker among the poor blacks of New Orleans. Rainey is a man with a conscience. Rainey criticises Rheinhardt for working for Bingamon (which provokes a strong reaction) and, when he realises that the survey he is carrying out is to disenfranchise the poor, he decides to react. Bingamon organises a huge right-wing rally, whose hidden aim is to provoke a race riot, which his oratory, aided by Rheinhardt, manages to achieve, till Rainey and his friend arrive with their explosives. It all ends nastily but Stone has great fun doing it.

Stone pulls no punches in his satire of Bingamon and his cronies but his cynicism extends beyond them. Rheinhardt, well aware of the evil nature of Bingamon goes along with him because, as far as he is concerned, looking out for himself is all that matters. Stone’s satire, his almost unrestrained use of language and his definitely unrestrained cynicism made this novel a big success when it was first published and it is still well worth reading, particularly post-Katrina.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Houghton Mifflin