Books

11.18.13

Of Sin and College: Robert Stone’s ‘Death of a Black-Haired Girl’

From novelist Robert Stone comes a surprisingly new novel, ‘Death of a Black-Haired Girl’, set on a college campus and suffused with questions of sin, judgment and punishment.

What’s this, a college novel from Robert Stone, our foremost chronicler of adventurous Americans in foreign lands? Yes, and not set in some metropolitan university that might attract his dangerous aliens, either, but on an elite whitebread campus in a small city close to New Haven. Stone did teach for many years at Yale, but his novels since Dog Soldiers have taken place outside the United States: A Flag For Sunrise and Children of Light south of the Rio Grande, Outerbridge Reach on the high seas, Damascus Gate in Israel, Bay of Souls in Haiti. Dog Soldiers began in Vietnam and then brought the madness there—the violence, drugs, betrayals—back home to a flower-power segment of America that Stone describes in his memoir of the prankster sixties, Prime Green. Like the ending of Dog Soldiers, Death of the Black-Haired Girl presents a presumed refuge of youthful “innocence” penetrated by the suppressed history and repressed manias—religious, political, personal—that have given Stone’s novels their long view and his characters their short fuses.

The stakes in college novels usually run to lost jobs and broken marriages. Stone immediately ups the ante with his title. Maud Stack is the beautiful and brilliant junior English major who will die. Will it be at the hands of the mumbling schizophrenic who roams the quad or one of the angry townies Maud must pass by on the way to class? Will she be murdered by one of the Right to Life fanatics who threaten her because of the mocking and blasphemous essay she wrote for the campus newspaper? Will she be killed by her advisor and lover, professor Steve Brookman, desperate to end his affair with Maud because his wife is pregnant? Through the first half of the novel, Stone keeps in play all these possibilities, any one of which would be fairly easy to understand in cultural or psychological terms.

But Maud dies in another way, which I won’t reveal, and Stone raises the stakes to the religious and metaphysical. Her death demands from characters around her—and from readers—difficult considerations of responsibility and fate, responses complicated by characters’ pasts and secrets. Once a devout Catholic, Maud is a thief, a heavy drinker, and promiscuous. Travel writer Brookman, a former Marine called by some a “polished thug,” has done prison time in his youth. His wife Ellie, who also teaches at the college, has inherited an old-time Mennonite faith that she imposes on her unbelieving husband. Maud’s college counselor, Jo Carr, is a former nun afflicted by nightmares about political murders witnessed in South America. The dean’s fixer wife, Mary Pick, sneaks off to masses said in Latin. Maud’s father, Edward, a fallen-away Catholic and retired New York City policeman with advanced emphysema from duty at Ground Zero, has done a favor for his brother-in-law, a bent cop who pilfered money from remains after 9/11, money that helps finance Maud’s education. Because only the reader, gradually, knows all these facts, the characters are, realistically, flawed in their judgments of each other.

When Ed Stack decides to kill Brookman, the novel’s second half rebuilds suspense with a revenge plot that Stone uses to rub characters against each other and argue issues of theodicy raised by Maud’s death. Religion and national politics were tangled in Children of Light and Damascus Gate. In Death of the Black-Haired Girl faith and reason and pragmatism and despair go at each other in a more purified personal form. At age 76 Stone writes more explicitly than ever before about the Catholicism often present at the fringes of his other books. Stack has difficulty finding a priest who will inter his daughter’s ashes. His similarly named creator can’t—or won’t—bury his faith that died, Stone has said, at about Maud’s age.

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‘Death of the Black-Haired Girl’ By Robert Stone. 288 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25. ()
Set a decade ago, ‘Death of the Black-Haired Girl’ gains historical resonance through multiple, quite explicit links to Hawthorne and his New England examinations of sin, judgment, and punishment.

This short novel resembles a play, a closet drama, for Stone does without his usual cinematic landscapes, detailed backstories, and interlocking subplots. Conflict occurs in small rooms and is oral rather than physical. “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” Catholic John Donne said. Stone’s handful of characters batter back and each other with insults and curses that reach a climax when Stack the man of the world confronts Brookman the bookman in his office.

Set a decade ago, Death of the Black-Haired Girl gains historical resonance through multiple, quite explicit links to Hawthorne and his New England examinations of sin, judgment, and punishment. Like “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Stone’s first pages have numerous references to hell, and later on a “Young Goodman Brown” mysterious stranger appears to have risen from the underworld. Characters harbor guilts, as does the college, founded to help eradicate papists and Indians. Ultimately, Maud’s death is blowback from another guilty American war. Like Hawthorne in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” about the death of another “innocent” girl in a professorial refuge within a dangerous city, Stone knows that no walled world—garden or campus—can exclude history or the possibility of evil or a blink in God’s attention to the sparrow.

Contemporary morality play and Hawthornian “romance,” Death of the Black-Haired Girl is also a companion piece to Stone’s last novel, Bay of Souls. In that book, a married college professor who resembles Brookman seeks sexual and religious transcendence in Haitian voodoo ceremonies. The characters struck me as fanciful, and the plot was contrived. In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, Stone purges all exoticism and artifice to more subtly—and profoundly—explore desire and its discontents, belief and its corruption.

Perhaps I should have disclosed earlier that I was educated by Jesuits and have been a university professor. I also once taught a course about college novels such as Nabokov’s Pale Fire, DeLillo’s White Noise, Russo’s Straight Man. Now I’d include Death of the Black-Haired Girl for its brooding update of Hawthorne’s tortured religious sensibility, almost unheard of in colleges and rarer still in fiction about them.