Leading the Life of (Not So) Quiet Desperation in Robert Stone’s World

Lee Polevoi

 

Death of the Black-Haired Girl

Robert Stone

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt

281 pages

 

The characters in Robert Stone's novels live lives of not-so-quiet desperation. Whether engendered by war and heroin, in Dog Soldiers, revolutionary zeal and madness in A Flag for Sunrise, madness again in Children of Light or religious fanaticism in Damascus Gate, these men and women find themselves headed for total meltdown. Waiting to see if the worst will happen—as it invariably does—is part of what has made Stone's work so compelling over the past five decades.

 

But while the same kind of drug-ridden and mentally deranged anguish compels the various characters in his new novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, the scope of the novel is smaller than before. For the most part, the story takes place in the New England college town of Amesbury, far from the roiling topographies of Vietnam, Central America and the Middle East of his prior work. The story is therefore less sprawling, but equally intense in its unflinching examination of the characters’ tormented inner lives.

 

Steve Brookman, a professor of literature at the unnamed college, has for the past year been involved in an extramarital affair with a student, the brilliant and lovely Maud Stack. When Brookman’s wife becomes pregnant, he decides to end the affair, though not as quickly and definitively as needed. In drunken despair, Maud stalks Brookman with voice messages and unannounced late-night visits. Finally, she confronts him outside his home one night as the crowd from a nearby hockey game floods the street; in a moment of explosive emotions that threatens to tear apart Brookman’s delicately balanced home life, Maud is struck and killed, the “victim of a nighttime hit-and-run driver.”

 

Throughout his career, Stone has captured the “fragile bark of human design” with more rigor and style than virtually any other author of his generation. His mordant voice is completely unique and free of distracting sentiment, as, for example, when describing a mentally unstable Amesbury resident who roams the town at the whim of voices in his head:

 

“Sometimes the man wandered into the college buildings and rode the elevators. Security never stopped him; no one bothered him. If he was in an elevator when someone got on, he would get off, even if he had just got on. If he was trapped in the elevator by a crowd, he began to act desperately sane, polishing his glasses with his handkerchief, nodding pleasantly at no one in particular, ignoring his voices. When he reached a floor he would race out, plainly agitated … It was so much work to be crazy, Brookman thought.”

 

Maud’s death devastates her father, Eddie Stack, a retired New York City detective who suffers from emphysema—at least partially caused by his work in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers in September 2001.

But Stack is also tormented by his own professional wrongdoing in connection with a sleazy in-law, Charlie Kinsella. Their encounter midway through the novel is vintage Stone—oblique and menacing, with reverberations far beyond the immediate moment. This scene also demonstrates the author’s extraordinary ability to imbue life into secondary characters: “Charlie had his hair cut in a place that actors went to [and] looked like an actor who might play an Irish cop on television.”

 

The question of evil and its pervasive effects on the human soul are never far from the core of Stone’s work. Soon after his disturbing exchange with Kinsella, Stack reflects on the evil unleashed by the events of 9/11:

 

“Old 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—had emerged with the fire coming down. The word had gone out. Competing villainies saying, It’s ours. Nobody ever suggested such a thing was common or general or even frequent. It was despised and aberrant. Still, it happened.”

 

For readers new to Robert Stone’s novels, I suggest starting with his under-appreciated masterpiece, Outerbridge Reach. Those who know and love his work will be greatly rewarded with the artistry and insight on display in Death of the Black-Haired Girl.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic and author of The Moon in Deep Winter, is completing a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

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