Reviews — From the January 2014 issue

The American Id

Robert Stone returns home

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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.

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’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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