Mod­ern moral­ity tale from an Amer­i­can master

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Kevin Ra­bal­ais

Death of the Black-Haired Girl By Robert Stone Con­sta­ble & Robin­son, 281pp, $19.99 AFTER he won the Wil­liam Faulkner Foun­da­tion Award for his 1966 de­but novel A Hall of Mir­rors, Robert Stone went to Viet­nam in search of a story. This kind of travel, or cul­tural tourism, has be­come a hall­mark for the nov­el­ist of­ten re­garded as Amer­ica’s Gra­ham Greene.

Stone’s ex­pe­ri­ences in Viet­nam, where he held cre­den­tials as a cor­re­spon­dent for Bri­tish mag­a­zine Ink, led to his 1975 Na­tional Book Award-win­ning novel Dog Sol­diers. Now con­sid­ered a con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can clas­sic, Dog Sol­diers fol­lows the dis­as­trous at­tempts of a mi­nor war cor­re­spon­dent and a mer­chant marine to smug­gle heroin from Viet­nam to Cal­i­for­nia. It’s a novel filled with the con­spir­a­cies, vi­o­lence, moral am­bi­gu­i­ties and spir­i­tual search­ing that have de­fined Stone’s work and make him one of Amer­ica’s finest writ­ers.

Given the some­times lengthy gaps be­tween Stone’s pub­li­ca­tions, height­ened an­tic­i­pa­tion has greeted the ar­rival of each book fol­low­ing Dog Sol­diers. The most no­table of th­ese in­clude A Flag for Sun­rise (1981), a Con­ra­dian novel set in a fic­ti­tious Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try on the thresh­old of revo­lu­tion; Outer­bridge Reach (1992), which takes place dur­ing a fever­ish cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion boat race; and Da­m­as­cus Gate (1998), a novel of re­li­gion and ter­ror­ism that un­folds in Jerusalem and Gaza.

Stone has a ten­dency to send his char­ac­ters

Novem­ber 1-2, 2014 into trou­bled places so as to ex­am­ine the ef­fects of US pol­icy and cul­ture on the world. His richly de­tailed nar­ra­tives have al­ways con­tained el­e­ments that we as­so­ciate with thriller writ­ing. Never be­fore, how­ever, has he em­ployed that genre as straight­for­wardly as in his lat­est novel. Death of the Black-Haired Girl con­tains many of the com­plex­i­ties of Stone’s pre­vi­ous work but re­veals its au­thor, now 77, still search­ing for new forms as he tries to com­pre­hend the spir­i­tual and moral con­cerns that dom­i­nate his coun­try.

If the in­flu­ences of Greene, Con­rad and Hem­ing­way have been clear through­out Stone’s work, Death of the Black-Haired Girl finds its guide not in th­ese writ­ers but in another moral al­le­gory, that of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scar­let Let­ter. Un­like most of Stone’s fic­tion, Death of the Black-Haired Girl takes place en­tirely within the US. It ex­am­ines is­sues that much con­tem­po­rary fic­tion satirises or glosses over, no­tably Chris­tian­ity and abor­tion, and it seeks to fully rep­re­sent char­ac­ters too of­ten treated with slight brush­strokes.

The novel be­gins with Maud Stack, newly ap­pointed news­pa­per ed­i­tor at the elite New Eng­land univer­sity she at­tends. Even be­fore we learn that Maud has been hav­ing an af­fair with her ad­viser, Steven Brook­man, Stone of­fers a key to her character: “Once, in high school, she had tried to steal an art book from the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art gift shop be­cause one of her teach­ers said there was a Whistler paint­ing of a girl who looked like her.”

When Brook­man’s wife be­comes preg­nant, he knows it’s time to call off the af­fair with Maud, but early one morn­ing she ar­rives, ir­re­sistible in her youth and “nice un­der­wear”, to con­vince him oth­er­wise. Much as Stone plays with cliche and our con­se­quent ex­pec­ta­tions, Brook­man isn’t obliv­i­ous to Maud’s am­bi­tions: “Surely she didn’t ex­pect to marry him. In the un­likely event of such a folly, she would walk in a year or two, chas­ing the smoke of the next ful­fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Maud wanted ful­fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. She wanted them for free.”

The plot so far, or­di­nary in pre­cis, sets the reader’s ex­pec­ta­tions for another cam­pus novel. How­ever, Stone clothes it in el­e­ments we find typ­i­cal in his best work. A writer who has al­ways been more in­ter­ested with ex­plor­ing his char­ac­ters’ psy­cholo­gies than in repli­cat­ing a fast­mov­ing nar­ra­tive, he in­tro­duces new char­ac­ters with each chap­ter, thereby deep­en­ing the novel’s com­plex­i­ties. Th­ese in­clude Maud’s fa­ther, a wi­d­ower and for­mer New York City po­lice de­tec­tive whose deal­ings with the Catholic Church verge on the Kafkaesque, and Jo Carr, a for­mer nun who ap­peared in a dif­fer­ent guise in A Flag for Sun­rise. Their lives be­come en­twined after Maud, an abor­tion rights ac­tivist, starts pub­lish­ing col­umns in the school pa­per com­bat­ing protests out­side an abor­tion clinic near cam­pus.

After her first ar­ti­cles ap­pear, Maud re­ceives threat­en­ing phone calls and death threats. This co­in­cides with the re­turn of Brook­man’s wife and daugh­ter from a trip to Canada, and he’s no longer an­swer­ing Maud’s fran­tic calls. After a night of drink­ing, Maud ar­rives at Brook­man’s home to con­front him about their re­la­tion­ship. This cov­ers the early stages of the novel and brings us to the ti­tle. Does Brook­man push Maud into the street or does she slip be­neath the car that strikes her be­fore it speeds away? Sev­eral passers-by take videos with their phones. “But ev­ery one of the videos ended in a scat­ter­ing, a rush­ing disorder and dis­so­lu­tion of images. In the end, it was im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine pos­i­tively what had taken place.”

Death of the Black-Haired Girl rises above genre writ­ing and de­votes its en­er­gies to ex­am­in­ing the moral con­se­quences our choices have on oth­ers. Stone in­fuses the novel — un­even at times but al­ways en­gag­ing — with ar­rest­ing de­tails and black hu­mour, such as when Maud, try­ing to for­get about Brook­man and the scan­dal her ar­ti­cles have caused, meets a man at “some mobbed-up club’’ . “The place she woke up in was a filthy apart­ment that smelled of as­bestos and lead and dead peo­ple and guys mak­ing free tele­phone calls to Poland.”

Death of the Black-Haired Girl, a mod­ern moral­ity tale, ex­am­ines the ef­fects of var­i­ous types of per­se­cu­tion and guilt, all set against an Amer­i­can back­drop of Chris­tian­ity and crime. It’s the most ac­ces­si­ble of Stone’s work, the kind of gritty and con­fronting novel that made his name five decades ago and should send a new le­gion of read­ers to his ear­lier work.

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