Death of the Black-Haired Girl

Characters who have the misfortune of landing in a Robert Stone novel inevitably find themselves, through acts of their own free will, passing through the fragile membrane that separates an apparently ordered universe from a damned one. Among such unfortunates are Owen Browne in Outerbridge Reach, radioing back phony positions for a supposed solo voyage across the Atlantic while he is in a personal hell aboard his little vessel, sailing in circles and losing his mind. Another is Christopher Lucas in Damascus Gate, arriving in Jerusalem as an inquiring skeptic with only the slightest tropism toward religious belief, inebriated by competing versions of the "Jerusalem Syndrome." Now here are Steven Brookman and Maud Stack, two fresh victims of their own actions, their melancholy fates unfurling in Stone's eighth novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl.

The story is set in a New England college. Once a sheltered arena of culture and order, its motto is Lux in umbras procedet:this I translate as "Light will go forth into shadows," which accords with the college's original mission of bringing Christian enlightenment to the world outside -- or, to give it Stone's darkly ironic spin, "The phrase referred to the college's ancient determination to confront Algonquians with the prospect of eternal fire." In fact, the college has, with a brief, instructive lapse in the sixties, shown as much concern with keeping the world out as with going forth. In that respect the history of the place is a microcosm of the history of privileged America:

Ever since the first Indian hatchet lodged its blade into the college's single stout oak door during the Seven Years' War, doors and access within had been significant there. For years the place rested behind no more bolts than the resort of young gentry required in any rough-handed New England mill town. Then the sixties struck, with coeducation and power to the people -- all sorts of people…and there was the Throwing Open of the Gates, the Unbolting of the Great Doors, the Opening to the Community. What ensued, drug-wise, crime-wise and in terms of bitterness between the college and the town, was brief but ugly. The opening forth was followed by a locking up, down and sideways that had locksmiths laboring day and night, and now there were three or four doors for everything.

Steven Brookman is a travel and adventure writer who has gained a position as professor at this decidedly top-drawer institution through luck and personal charm, the two combining in a careless nature. Though married to a woman he loves deeply and with whom he has a ten-year-old daughter, he cheerfully indulges in extramarital affairs; he had restricted himself to the academically fair game of faculty wives until a year or so ago, when he took up with a student whose adviser he is. This is Maud Stack; the daughter of a retired New York cop, she is young and beautiful, with the reckless arrogance of both. She is also high-strung and urgent, and not the sort of person with whom breaking up will be pleasant. Though still fascinated by her freshness, vitality, and quick intelligence, Steven is intent on doing just that: his wife is pregnant again, and he wants to preserve  and protect "the contoured life he had made himself, the devotions and sacred loyalties within it."  
 
Meanwhile, outside the college gates, homeless people of the decayed city rumble and menace, and a threatening cordon of anti-abortion activists with placards depicting aborted fetuses has assembled outside the doors of the medical center. This gets under Maud's very thin skin, and she decides to give them a dose of their own medicine by composing a scathing, condescending diatribe that is published in the college newspaper. The illustrations of deformed live births with which she ornamented the screed are not included, but they do make their way onto the Internet. Maud had given this inflammatory piece to Steven to vet, but he, weary of her carryings-on, didn't even bother to look at it. The publication of this confrontational blast of righteousness inflames hatred and madness, and draws violent threats down upon Maud from its targets outside the college. Too late, Steven ponders Maud's rashness: "She's a policeman's daughter, he thought; does she not know what's out there? Does she expect nothing but cheers from all directions?"

The book's title pretty much announces the next development; and, naturally as these things go, when Steven's sexual liaison and negligence become known, his disgrace seeps into the careers of the college president and the dean, "the smoothest operator ever to package a denial of college liability in a letter of condolence."  

But who really did kill Maud Stack? That is the question that makes the novel a little like a crime thriller, though one informed by a vision of hell -- which is another way of saying Robert Stone wrote it. Was the perpetrator an anti-abortionist? Or Maud's roommate's crazed ex-husband? This man is now under the influence of one Dr. Russell Fumes -- in whose name alone we detect a whiff of brimstone. Or was it, just to touch on the signal example of twenty-first-century iniquity, someone delivering payback for the organized looting that occurred after 9/11? That cataclysm and "the fire coming down" had unloosed an ancient evil, "criminal conspiracies that had been, so to speak, present in the pilings under the river, the shafts, the salt-encrusted drowned alleys and bricked-up tunnels, with the eels' nests and the wrecked rope walks -- that had been there in spirit since the first white men, with their bindles and kit, and before them."

The image is Stone's, the suggestion of payback that of Charlie Kinsella, Eddie Stack's ex-brother-in-law, a slick ex-cop who, unwelcomed, appears dressed in fine clothes whose provenance was, most likely, a tailor shop adjacent to Ground Zero. Eddie was innocent of all this malfeasance: his reward was emphysema. But he had, in his weakness, allowed his daughter to receive funds for college expenses from that source.

Eddie's sadly complicated life is an element in this novel: an alcoholic, he is filled with self-loathing and somehow, in the reverse alchemy that frame of mind generates, blames himself, existentially at least, for Maud's death: "It seemed to him he had been poisoned by anger long before he had any right to it; it must be in his blood, he thought, the anger. He had known honor and pretended to despise it, to dread hope, fear light, laugh off dreams of justice, laugh it off. Those were the reasons she was dead." Also treading the novel's fiery path is an ex-nun, Jo, now a counselor at the college; she is forced to confront intolerable memories of revolutionary savagery in South America when she encounters a man she believes is the charismatic instigator of village massacres.

Stone's deftness in conflating his vision of damnation with the steady movement of spiritual and ethical dissonance in America is present throughout. His characters make their way through worlds that are meticulously described in material and geographic detail, but they are worlds, nonetheless, in which everyday activity is only a bustle over a darker reality of anger and madness.

 

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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