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Robert Stone returns home

Discussed in this essay:

Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 288 pages. $25.

“That is my subject,” Robert Stone told his Paris Review interviewer nearly thirty years ago: “America and Americans.” It’s a statement that might be made by any number of writers, but Stone’s particular genius has been to capture the mood of his times by locating his studies of that subject outside the borders of America itself. His novels tend to place artists or academics — though of an unusually competent, macho stripe — in dangerously unfamiliar settings that challenge not only their survival instincts but also their capacity to stay sane. Dog Soldiers, his second novel, which shared the National Book Award in 1975 and largely made his literary reputation, is set primarily in Vietnam. A Flag for Sunrise (1981) takes place in a fictional Central American republic torn by the sort of revolutionary violence endemic in much of Central America in those years. Geopolitically speaking, these were somewhat obvious choices for a socially conscious American novelist of the Seventies and Eighties; but even when Stone’s fiction took a turn toward a smaller-scale, more psychological approach — 1986’s Children of Light, about a film shoot too dependent on a schizophrenic actress, and 1998’s underappreciated Outerbridge Reach, about an amateur sailor who ill-advisedly enters a solo race around the world — he kept his fictional compatriots mostly in a kind of exile. Stone’s topic has been not simply America but American influence, American overreach, the last dark, nasty spasms of the American century.

Illustration by André Carrilho

Illustration by André Carrilho

Thus it comes as a surprise in the opening chapters of Death of the Black-Haired Girl, Stone’s eighth and latest novel, to see that bold, farsighted eye trained on what seems like uncharacteristically homely turf: the campus of a small, venerable liberal-arts college in a fictional New England town called Amesbury. Within a few pages, though, we are well into Stone territory. Amesbury is like some twenty-first-century production of Hieronymus Bosch, a crowded, exaggeratedly dichotomous urban tinderbox in which beautiful, privileged young students of literature and art coexist with a roiling underclass of drug addicts, the homeless, and the mentally ill. The novel opens on an undergraduate named Maud Stack taking a morning walk across campus with her roommate, Shelby:

In front of the church on the edge of the Common, she saw the homeless men gathered to wait for meal tickets. They huddled like animals, leaking plastic foam from their dumpster ski jackets. A few of them tried to find space to sit on the narrow park rail which, at some time in the eighties, had been set with spikes to discourage unsightly feeding and defecation. A new franchise hotel had its main entrance across the street. . . .

On Cross Street the panhandlers did not usually hit on Maud or her friends. In fact they rarely hit on any of the particularly attractive girls. Where raillery might be expected, there was none; no teasing between the lost boys and the college girls. There was too much privilege and anger — a terrifying atavistic cloud enfolding shame and resentment, even humiliation and murder. Bad things had happened. Everyone knew better.

It is a sort of New Haven of the mind. So pronounced is the gulf between the college and the street people of Amesbury that it has a genetic component: “the female students,” Stone observes, “were on average taller than the men of the town.”

Shelby, that winter morning, is on her way to class, but Maud’s first appointment of the day is of a different sort: she is headed to the office of a married, middle-aged English professor named Steven Brookman, who is her teacher, her academic adviser, and, for the past year or so, her lover. It’s a scenario so old that not even a novelist of Stone’s gifts could do much to freshen it up — for which reason, perhaps, he wisely begins near its end: when we first see Brookman, he is sitting in his office self-remonstrating that the time has come to break things off. His wife and daughter, who have been away on an extended trip, are about to return for Christmas, and his advisee, though he professes to love her, is becoming more attached than he is prepared to handle. That poor Maud, within a minute or two of entering his office, is on her knees behind his desk gratifying him is indicative of the tepidity of Brookman’s resolve. Still, he manages to hint to her, if not in the most clear-cut or sensitive way, that the end of their relationship is nigh.

Milan Kundera has used the musical term “tone row” to describe the group of foundational words underpinning his novels. If Stone’s oeuvre had a tone row, it might look like so: alcohol, politics, guns, drugs, schizophrenia, violence, God. Maud Stack, young and callow though she may be, is a kind of Stone character in training. She has all the building blocks: she drinks too much, and acts out when she does so; she is a little smarter and more mercurially tempered than her peers; and, raised Catholic by her father (a retired Queens police detective) and her late mother, she has lately rejected Church dogma with a vengeance.

The route from her lover’s office to her first class of the morning (art history) takes Maud past the university hospital, where a group of Christians stage daily anti-abortion protests. Stone makes the connection between these religious zealots and Amesbury’s lumpen element pretty clear:

In Amesbury, the right-to-life issue was decidedly a class thing. . . . There were a few men among the marchers, mainly older, wearing imperfects discounted at the mall, looking as though they had just come from the slot machines at the nearest low-rent casino. People smoked. Some of the women protesters had a few pale hardscrabble children with them and carried signs that said stop the murders, god is love and save god’s angels. Others carried more aggressive placards: death to the haters of life; rome fell through foul abortion, our country will too; whores will die of their sin. They somehow drew onlookers’ attention to the crazies in the crowd, who seemed as if they’d grown close to Jesus the hard way.

For Maud, the demonstrators’ provenance — their unstylish poverty, that is, and their Catholic roots — is close enough to her own to make them a special irritant. But what really provokes her, on this particular morning, are the kitschy pictures on some of their placards — blown-up photos of terminated fetuses looking like children murdered in their sleep. In the way of certain smart young people who feel that intelligence itself is a kind of license, she conceives a terrible idea: she will write a piece for the campus newspaper ridiculing and denouncing the anti-abortion movement as a whole. And, without much reflection, she does so, employing not only the most intemperate language imaginable but also gruesome photographs she unearths from a medical textbook called Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation:

Yes, friends, twenty percent of pregnancies spontaneously abort. And lots of those that don’t aren’t nearly as lovable as the ones in the signs the right-to-lifers carry. . . .

You guys might not be able to tell, but these deformed children are made in the image and likeness of the Great Imaginary Paperweight in the Vast Eternal Blue. It’s true that the Great Paperweight is also the Great Abortionist — a freeze-chilling twenty percent of the sparkly tykes he generates abort — but he don’t like some girl doin’ it.

His eye is on the sparrow and he’s got all his creatures covered, even those who aren’t as cute as the wee life forms his assembled fusiliers carry. Remember, there’s life after birth, as the Assembled Ones never tire of reminding us. That’s what prisons and lethal injections are for. He’s the Great Torturer, and he wants nothing more than to fry your ass eternally — not for just an hour, not for just a year, but always.

Her one nod toward prudence — she tries to get Brookman to read her piece before it’s published — goes for naught, because the craven Brookman is ducking all her messages and phone calls. In no time, Maud’s screed is not just all over campus but all over the Internet, and it galvanizes the very forces Maud naïvely thought she could silence. Threats are made against her. Then Brookman’s wife returns, and Maud begins to unravel. She starts drinking more heavily. A counselor at the campus health center named Jo Carr — herself a former nun who “had come to despise both the Catholic Church and its archenemies” — recognizes a crisis in the making and tries to get Maud admitted, but she flees. She even shows up briefly at her father’s home in Queens, but his take on her troubles is not one to which she feels like listening:

“People’s religion — it’s not like opium. It don’t work that way. It’s their mother, you understand. They may not understand their mother at all. They may hate their mother. Maybe they’re ashamed of their mother. Sometimes a mother makes someone hate other people” . . . He thought back for a moment and laughed a little. “When I started swinging a stick they told me: Put ’em in their place, tell ’em what shits they are, but for God’s sake don’t mention their mother.”

Maud makes her way back to Amesbury, toward an inevitable, drunken, violent, very public confrontation with her cowardly lover. It should come as little surprise to learn, as the reader does before the novel is half over, that Maud is the black-haired girl of the title.

For upwards of forty years, Stone has been chief custodian of one of the fundamental modes of American fiction: an intentionally destabilized naturalism, joining arcane, realistic detail to a borderline-gothic tone of heightened perception. Dark, spiritual forces threaten constantly to extrude. Hallucination and delusion — sometimes individual, sometimes collective — shape, but do not override, the traditional Conradian imperatives of sensory precision and of storytelling. Through Stone’s eleven books you can draw a reasonably straight line from Hawthorne and Melville all the way to his most obvious literary heir, Denis Johnson. Stone himself has said that realism is “a fallacy” — a surprising position, on its face, for an author known for propulsive yarns about war and seafaring and geopolitical intrigue. “It’s simply not tenable. You have to write a poem about what you’re describing. You can’t render, can’t dissect. Zola was deluded.”

Throughout his career Stone has brought his ambitious aesthetic to bear on settings all around the world, in particular on foreign-policy hot spots both real (Jerusalem, Vietnam, Mexico) and thinly fictionalized. But there is a way in which Death of the Black-Haired Girl represents a kind of return to roots: the only other Stone novel whose dramatic action takes place entirely inside the United States is his first one. A Hall of Mirrors, first published in 1966, is set in New Orleans, a cauldron of racial and political ill will, and remains as pure an indictment of the American id as postwar American fiction has produced. It beggars belief that A Hall of Mirrors was Stone’s, or anybody’s, first novel. Its final set piece, a scene of mob violence incited in large part by a local radio station that might appear on the genealogical chart of Fox News, has lost none of its power to impress and horrify:

The voices were closer now so that he knew suddenly what it was he heard and how the light could be so clear. It was the grain-scented wind of an American morning that blew over him, and he listened to each voice that the wind carried. Condolences, promises, guarded ridicule, seductions, false laughter . . . Rainey turned and saw a crowd coming toward him out of the sun. When the rank drew near, he saw that the faces in the crowd were bloodied and that in it were people whom he knew.

A Hall of Mirrors reads in retrospect like a prologue to the half century of writing that was to come. It is a look back, as from shipboard, at a country arrogantly bent on exporting the worst of itself, by force if necessary. There’s more than a little Graham Greene to Stone’s tales of political malfeasance and frustrated religious impulse, of non-innocents abroad — though Greene was far too buttoned-up to deliver orchestral effects like this one, from Dog Soldiers:

Hicks drove on speed. His fatigue hung the desert grass with hallucinatory blossoms, filled ravines with luminous coral and phantoms. The land was flat and the roads dead straight; at night, headlights swung for hours in space, steady as a landfall — and then rushed past in streaks of color, explosions of engine roar and hot wind.

The architecture of Stone’s early novels tends toward a formal sameness, an inevitability: three braided strands, three characters converging in time for a concluding set piece of apocalyptic violence. By virtue of being American, these characters cannot stand pat, they cannot steer clear of conflict, and they stain most everything they touch. “Mickey Mouse,” warns Sunrise’s Frank Holliwell — in ur-Stone fashion, a Vietnam vet, an unpredictable roughneck whose bland surname sounds like an alias, and a university anthropologist — “will see you dead.”

The dissolution of America’s promise as a global actor was, for Stone, tied to the dissolution of norms on the home front (social, political, cultural) that defined the era in which he came of age. A former Navy sailor turned journalist turned bus companion of Kerouac and Kesey, Stone is the first to admit that the Sixties have informed his work. (Prime Green, published in 2007, is his proud, funny, unsentimental memoir of the promise and wreckage of those years.) But if there’s a reason, beyond mere talent, why his work hasn’t come to seem dated as a result, it may be that he had the instinct early on to link that anti-authoritarian cultural skepticism to the other great power vacuum of the late twentieth century: God. Stone was raised Catholic, and while he left that identity behind decades ago he has never lost his sense of the volatility, both spiritual and social, brought into play by God’s withdrawal. “I feel a very deep connection to the existentialist tradition of God as an absence,” he has said. “Not a meaningless void, but a negative presence we live in terms of. I do have the sense of a transcendent plane from which I’m barred and I want to play off of it.”

Stone’s fiction (which includes two exceptionally good short-story collections) is full of searchers, of exiles from the peace that faith provides. Some of them suffer from this soul sickness, and others use it to cause others to suffer. Even their dialogue brings into frictive collision the sacred and the profane, as in this gnomic remark from Brookman’s boss, the college president:

It’s all right, Steve. I should have seen it coming. It’s an age of transition, isn’t it? The old arrangements fall before the new arrangements. That which was unspeakable may thrive and is blessed. That which was tolerated is an abomination. We’ve been living it. The fine old shit don’t float.

“There are no writers I’m aware of who are doing the same sort of thing I’m doing,” Stone told The Paris Review in 1985, “because I take seriously questions that the culture has largely obviated. In a sense, I’m a theologian. And so far as I know, I’m the only one.”

For a while Death of the Black-Haired Girl presents itself as a murder mystery of sorts, but what it becomes, in its last hundred pages, is a meditation not just on religion in general but directly, and witheringly, on the Catholic Church. “I [n]ever expected to be a writer who deals with religion,” Stone said to Bookforum in 2003. “I really thought I had come to terms with that.” After eleven books, his explorations seem to have returned to where he started out.

Maud Stack’s death, even though it occurs onstage, comes about under ambiguous circumstances. Part of a crowd pouring into the street after a hockey game at the college rink, she charges drunk onto Brookman’s front lawn and starts yelling for him. He comes outside while his wife watches from the doorway; Brookman, even while realizing the ruin this public moment is bringing to his personal and professional lives, tries to soothe Maud, who responds by landing a few good punches. She staggers in the direction of the street, Brookman reaches for her, and she is hit by a speeding car that then takes off without stopping.

On a thematic level, this death may be a simple, crude exaction of vengeance by the angry, suprapersonal forces with which young Maud has unwisely messed; but within the world of the novel, no one, it seems, will be satisfied until some individual is made to pay. More than one witness comes forward to swear — despite the existence of cell phone video evidence that can be interpreted to the contrary — that Brookman himself pushed Maud into the path of the car. Others are convinced that the car was driven by one of the anti-abortion crusaders Maud provoked. A local cop does not especially like the demeanor of Brookman’s wife. The ex-husband of Maud’s roommate Shelby (he married her when she was sixteen) confesses that he murdered Maud, which is befuddling since at the time he was a thousand miles away and nominally institutionalized. The rest of the novel is driven by various manifestations of the urge to repay blood with blood.

The strangest — in fact, the most outright metaphysical — of these manifestations comes through the perception of Jo Carr, the university mental-health counselor and ex-nun. Jo’s own estrangement from the Church seems connected, in ways left purposefully sketchy, to her years in an unnamed South American republic not unlike the one in A Flag for Sunrise, years when she saw religious certitude turned to brutal ends. Shortly after the publication of Maud’s essay, a man turns up whom Jo swears she has seen before — a sinister priest of her former order and “the most avid defender of violent methods,” known simply as the Mourner. He travels — seemingly the length of the world — to Jo’s office to ask her to produce Maud, so that the girl might be called to account for what he considers her mockery of the Lord. “But it was not possible,” Jo thinks. “Everyone said the Mourner was dead.”

But the most touching (and un-Stone-like) of the various characters who won’t rest unless Maud’s death is avenged is her bereaved father, Eddie Stack. Eddie suffers increasingly from respiratory troubles brought on by his work as a first responder in the days after the fall of the World Trade Center towers. (Lest he seem too uncomplicatedly heroic, he is haunted by his passive complicity in a corrupt police scheme to loot the ruins; in fact, the depths of that scheme provide the novel with another suspect in Maud’s death.) Eddie is the sort of recovered alcoholic who makes a point of keeping a full bottle of Jameson in the house: he motivates himself not through virtue but through spiteful proximity to vice. Having already lost his wife, Eddie fixates on Brookman — a man who represents just about everything he loathes — as the cause of his daughter’s death, even as law-enforcement friends in the know try to talk him off that idea. Brookman may not have killed Maud in any legal sense, Eddie feels, but he corrupted her, which put her on the path to death.

The action of the novel sifts down to Stack and his nemesis, the cop and the professor; and in these two figures, much as in the novel’s unusually tight setting, one sees how the purview of Stone’s fiction has changed. His novels have always been dominated by hardy, capable guys: Brookman, despite being an English professor, is an ex-Marine who knows (and owns) his firearms. Yet he is oddly powerless — unable to act decisively, brought low by the denunciation of a young girl, meekly hoping for his wife’s (and his employer’s) forgiveness. Even his climactic confrontation with Stack takes place not in some disorienting foreign jungle but in his familiar little faculty office, against an opponent so physically feeble Brookman fears he might expire untouched.

Eddie, too, is a formerly intimidating masculine presence, one whom time has undone. The reader feels his frustration: he walks with a cane and is left short of breath by the slightest exertion. He is at his weakest and most enraged when he tries to have his daughter’s remains interred beside those of her mother in the family’s parish church — maybe the novel’s most pointed indictment of Catholic dogma and its representatives. Unable to get a direct answer, Stack and the funeral director, whose name is McCallum, show up unannounced with Maud’s ashes at the rectory door:

“We’ve heard about your need from Mr. McCallum. I’m Father Washington.” He put his hand out but Stack did not take it. “I’m afraid this is still under discussion.”

“What do you mean, ‘this’? Letting my daughter be with her mother? I want to put her here now.”

“This is embarrassing,” the priest said.

“Is it?” Stack asked him. . . .

“Mr. Stack is a police officer,” McCallum told the priest.

“Is that right?” Father Washington asked. “Very fine. Thank you for your service. Actually, I think I read that somewhere.”

“How about opening up and receiving the kid’s ashes?”

“Yeah, well,” Father Washington said in a strange tone, different from the brisk one he had been employing. “Now you want us.”

The novel grows schematic toward its end, though this is somehow less off-putting than it might be, because the quality of Stone’s thought is so interesting. New secondary characters keep getting introduced simply to provide mouthpieces for particular moral points of view. The elegant wife of the college dean, for example — who, we are told, shares with Jo the experience of having “soldiered through the unraveling ranks of the Catholic religion on various of its forced marches through the abysmal sleep of reason” — delivers a much more sophisticated version of the anti-abortion position than that of the surly protesters with their placards: a smart, fair bit of balance on Stone’s part, but also a somewhat transparent one. And a sage figure with the Dickensian name of Victor Lerner — a friend of Jo Carr’s, scarred by similar experiences abroad — is boldly introduced just three pages before the novel’s end, in order to take part in this closing exchange with Jo:

“History . . . history is poisoned by claims on underlying truth. We’ve both been burned by people who think they represent them. Underlying truth. Do you think any of these things are objectively out there?”

“Jo, on a scale of yes and no, I would have to say no. Counterintuitive as that may be.”

“Why counterintuitive?”

“Ah,” Victor said as another freight took sound and shape behind him. “Because people always want their suffering to mean something.”

Though not Stone’s strongest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl is an impressive and apt closing of the circle, both on his oeuvre and on the era of American empire he has so ambitiously, energetically chronicled. The hobbled characters, the gray college town, the attempts to ascertain the motive of a crime that may not have had any motive at all — they seem to add up to a retrenchment on Stone’s part, a hunkering down. It’s tempting to attribute some of this reduction in scale to the fact that Stone is now seventy-six and that Death of the Black-Haired Girl is his first novel in ten years. Much more pertinent is that the contrast between its field of deep moral inquiry and its pale, almost claustrophobic setting makes it a novel for its time. A weakened, chastened America has for the most part wrapped up its era of global misadventure; and much of the violent spiritual unrest, the soul sickness, that it stirred up seems, like the Mourner, to have followed it back home.

’s most recent novel is A Thousand Pardons (Random House). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Time’s Current,” appeared in the April 2013 issue.

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