Modern morality tale from an American master
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.