Robert Stone’s novels play by their own rules. They are remarkable for their headlong, adrenaline-stoked narrative drive, their sustained spiritual and moral complexity, their unsentimental dramatization of the fate of the American idea, and their unrelenting anatomizations of grief, privation, and despair. For all of their sweeping scope and vast inclusiveness, however, Stone’s eight novels are also notable for what they omit, which is any recognizable version of Stone’s authorial consciousness. Stone, now 76, arrives at the tail end of a generation of postwar American novelists who — to put it mildly — tended to sing of themselves. David Foster Wallace put it less mildly when he labeled that generation (one that included Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth) the “Great Male Narcissists,” and argued that their seemingly bottomless aesthetic solipsism made them “probably the most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.” By comparison, Stone — who rolled with Ken Kesey and other icons of the 1960s counterculture — may have more in common with the displacements and self-cancelling gestures of a Bob Dylan than with the limitless self-assertions of a John Updike. At the same time, it’s not as though Stone himself is ever entirely absent from his fictions, either. Yet the author’s presence can be glimpsed only fleetingly, as though through our peripheral vision: it’s in the whiskey his characters imbibe with such gusto; it’s in the literary allusions that flow from their lips; it’s blowing through the blasted landscapes that play host to their sordid dramas. Stone himself remains in soft focus — a complete unknown. “No one in this place but me, and I’m not here.”
Death of the Black-Haired Girl offers a reprise of some of Stone’s signature themes, chief among them the notion of a departed author, lover, or god who is most excruciatingly present in his or her absence. (The black-haired girl herself exits the narrative little more than a third of the way through.) The setting is the decaying New England mill town of Amesbury — seemingly a mash-up of New Haven and Amherst — where the prestigious college remains a sole beacon surrounded by encroaching darkness. The campus exists in a permanent state of lockdown, surrounded on all sides by the homeless and the mentally ill, “huddled like animals, leaking plastic foam from their dumpster ski jackets.” Class differences have entered the gene pool: “The female students, mainly teenagers, were on average taller than the men of the town.”
When we first encounter professor Steve Brookman — who, following A Flag for Sunrise’s Frank Holliwell and Bay of Souls’ Michael Ahearn, is the latest occupant of Stone’s endowed chair for scholars run dangerously amok — he has decided to “digest the venom of loss” and cut off his yearlong affair with Maud. Brookman’s wife is recently pregnant with their second child, which somehow compounds his betrayal. Besides, Maud had been “threatening to crowd out the contoured life he had made for himself, the devotions and sacred loyalties within it.” Maud has to go; though of course the endings of things are always frayed.
Perhaps intuiting the emotional bombshell Brookman is preparing to drop, Maud takes refuge by diving into a whole new firestorm. Maud’s route to and from campus takes her past the women’s center at Whelan Hospital, where crowds of protestors demonstrate in front of the obstetrics center that performs the town’s abortions. While the protestors skew female and Catholic, Stone suggests that the right-to-life issue is “decidedly a class thing”: the men shuffle about in “imperfects discounted at the mall, looking as though they had just come from the slot machines at the nearest low-rent casino.” They brandish placards with the usual horrid slogans: “death to the haters of life,” “whores will die of their sin.” Most revolting, to Maud, are the ghastly images of terminated fetuses flaunted by some of the demonstrators. Many liberal-minded readers will no doubt sympathize with Maud: the politicized deployment of images of aborted life is not only callous and tasteless; it also constitutes a further vandalism or obscenity against the life such demonstrators claim to hold so dear. (Exactly whose rights are violated by these pictures is harder to articulate, since those who are offended by the genre are also the first to insist that the abject subjects of such images don’t have the right to anything — not even life.) Any consideration of the author’s own view on the matter must recall the brutal image with which Stone confronted us in “Miserere,” his masterly abortion story:
Mary lifted the curtain and looked at the little dead things on the floor. They had lobster-claw, unseparated fingers, and one had a face. Its face looked like a Florida manatee’s, Mary thought. It was the only living resemblance she could bring to bear — a manatee, bovine, slope-browed. One was still enveloped in some kind of fibrous membrane that suggested bat wings.
Maud, sick of having such images waved in her face, takes to her computer and excretes a venomous screed of a column for the student newspaper, one in which she caricatures God as “the Great Abortionist” (20 percent of pregnancies abort spontaneously, after all) and sarcastically reminds her readers that “there’s life after birth […] That’s what prisons and lethal injections are for. He’s the Great Torturer, and he wants nothing more than to fry your ass eternally — not for just an hour, not for just a year, but always.” Words alone are not enough for Maud, whose Catholic fetishization of the image leads her to illustrate the column with pictures selected from Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation. The photos show newborns who had been piously brought to term with Meckel-Gruber or hydrolethalus syndrome, babies born without eyes, without skulls — monstrous things that (Miserere nobis) may live for as long as a day before they die.
With these narrative pieces in play, Stone seems to have set the stage for a particular tragedy: an English professor cheats on his newly pregnant wife with a volatile student, while the theme of abortion hovers ominously in the background. We know how this ends. But just as a certain terrible inevitability starts to congeal around the plot, Stone swerves in another direction entirely. One winter night, having been dumped by her professor of desire, Maud suddenly materializes in front of the Brookman family home, where she proceeds to make a drunken spectacle of herself. Steve darts out to defuse the situation, Maud gets physical with him, and in the ensuing altercation the black-haired girl goes the way of Myrtle Wilson. “The sound had the quality of a shattering and an element like brass resonating, a ring in it, a strange gong and a crack.” Brookman stands there holding a single mitten.
Here, one is tempted to observe that Black-Haired Girl transitions from “town and gown” novel to something of a police procedural, but of course it is never much of either. Where a novel such as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot revels in the nostalgic details of undergraduate existence — faithfully reporting on the reading materials, musical tastes, mating habits, and desperate yearnings that braid through the daily fabric of college life — Stone consciously starves the narrative of such detail. In I am Charlotte Simmons, to name another recent example, Tom Wolfe turns himself into an anthropologist of the alcoholic hook-up culture that thrives in America’s institutions of higher learning. Where Wolfe painstakingly (or perhaps just painfully) reproduces the garbage-speak of contemporary undergraduate discourse —
“Yo, Hoyt! ‘Sup? […] I saw you upstairs there hittin’ on that little tigbiddy! Tell the truth! You really, honestly, think she’s hot?”
“Coo Uh gitta bigga boner?”
— Stone’s undergraduates address each other in a way that combines literary bombast with ironic deflation, as though their speeches arrive in little self-popping balloons:
“Your beloved mentor was up here looking for you last night,” Shell told [Maud]. “Like he came twice. A big old professor coming to the squalid chambers of us waifs. For you, his sweetheart.”
Stone is less interested in the “realism” of such speech — or of the novel’s representation of collegiate life more generally — than he is in the university as a locus of social and historical force. “Ever since the first Indian hatchet lodged its blade in the college’s single stout oak door during the Seven Years’ War,” Stone writes, “doors and access within had been significant there.” If, for Eugenides, the university represents a fundamentally innocent holiday from “real life,” a pre-historical womb for intellectual and spiritual development — and if, for Wolfe, it represents an utterly debauched saturnalia of binge-drinking and meaningless sex (which turns out to be exactly the same thing) — Stone insists that we understand the university as radically inside America and its histories of violence. Stone reflects that the school’s motto, Lux in umbras procedet [the light will carry on in the darkness], “referred to the college’s ancient determination to confront Algonquians with the prospect of eternal fire.” But if the Native American genocide was a necessary down payment on our shiny New World Enlightenment ideals, the physically stunted “lost boys” of the mill town are continuing to pick up the tab. All Americans, whether they wanted it or not, have had “access to higher education” — or rather higher education has had access to them.
While his own undergraduate education was abbreviated when he dropped out of New York University — the staggering learning on display in his novels is a victory of autodidacticism — Stone has held various writer-in-residence and teaching posts over the years, and is obviously familiar with the theoretical complaint against the metaphysically underpinned naturalism that forms the generic foundation of his entire literary corpus. Stone remains an unregenerate adherent of the “cult of experience,” whose former Grand Dragons include the likes of Frank Norris and Ernest Hemingway. As he observed in Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties,
In the days before MFA programs spread like Irish monasteries in the Dark Ages, replicating themselves, ordaining and sending forth their novices, aspiring writers often did a measure of hack work, the way farmers inevitably ate a pound or two of dirt each year.
Stone’s covenant with authenticity — and his corresponding impatience with the critical impulse to “deconstruct” that sacred category — reveals itself obliquely in Black-Haired Girl:
Across the street from his quad gate in the Taylor Library someone had lit a fire in the Great Hall, a quasi-medieval concoction from the prime of Stanford White. It was beautiful beyond the sneers of modernists and postmodernists, beyond authenticity.
In his memoir, Stone identifies “authenticity” as the essential region of aesthetic husbandry (“a magical coast, a holy mountain where folk of unsullied unself-consciousness labored at genuinely valid occupations […] where dwelt the thing itself”). The promise of Prime Green finds fulfillment in the “prime of White,” whose “quasi-medieval concoction” embodies a primal beauty that remains impervious to deconstruction by sneering postmodernists. The thematic and allusive density of Stone’s prose emerges when we recall that Stanford White was murdered over his adulterous relationship with Evelyn Nesbit. She had been 16 at the time of their affair; White had been 47. William Randolph Hearst’s tabloids dubbed the ensuing prosecution “The Trial of the Century.”
The death of Stone’s black-haired girl will culminate in no such trial. Various dark and conspiratorial theories are advanced — some believe Brookman shoved Maud into the oncoming car; Jo Carr, Maud’s former guidance counselor, believes that Maud’s anti-abortion screed may have attracted the wrath of a dangerous revolutionary priest known as “the Mourner”; Eddie Stack, Maud’s father and a retired NYPD cop, worries that Maud may have been killed over bribe money he accepted for ignoring depredations that followed the September 11 attacks.
But in the end, the question of who killed Maud Stack is less important than what her death means — or, indeed, whether it can mean. Both Maud’s father and her lover frame her murder as some kind of inexorable human sacrifice. “It was all easy to understand,” reflects the father. “Stack the monster and the monster’s lovely daughter — it was a rendering of justice against both of them.” Brookman attempts to rationalize his way out of any final responsibility for Maud’s fate—though he, too, feels that her death “was some kind of blood debt.”
Stone’s abiding interest in abortion, then, turns out to be a variation on a larger narrative obsession with human sacrifice. Indeed, the specter of the human scapegoat announces itself early in Death of the Black-Haired Girl, when Jo Carr — who had once been a teaching nun with the Devotionists in South America — recalls, “[t]he Spanish priests had believed that secret human sacrifices were made to Sirius and other stars. Surely they — practitioners of auto-da-fé — had also believed that the spectacle of ceremonial homicide was edifying.” Stone’s readers will recognize Jo Carr as an updated version of Sister Justin from A Flag for Sunrise — “one of the rich, subtle women who dominate Stone’s fiction,” according to Mark Levene, Stone’s sharpest critic.
But while Stone’s novels are indeed dominated by formidable, nuanced women, they also demonstrate a rather ruthless tendency to abort these fine specimens of femininity. In this respect, Maud Stack joins previous Stone heroines such as Lu Anne Bourgeois — the schizophrenic actress in Children of Light, who wades into the ocean and drowns herself in homage to Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier — and Sister Justin herself, who is tortured to death near the end of A Flag for Sunrise. At times, the anger and violence directed toward women in Stone’s fiction can appear anything but edifying. Here is Children of Light’s Gordon Walker, a middle-aged, drug-addled screenwriter, ogling the lithe form of his sleeping lover:
He ran his eyes over her long frame and wondered if she knew he knew about the pistol she kept in the wicker chest beneath her bed, wrapped in a scarf with her Ritalin tablets. Or whether she knew his number well enough to imagine the measure of his rage, or the murderous fantasies that assailed him — of destroying her, transforming her supple youth to offal, trashing it.
So, which of these narrative impulses has presided over the murder of Maud Stack? Is her death edifying — if not for her lover or father, then at least for the reader? Or has Stone created the strong, supple young Maud only to transform her into offal — to trash her (“with a gong and a crack”) alongside the “little dead things” from “Miserere”?
Steve Brookman and Eddie Stack offer two different perspectives on whether Maud’s death amounts to a sacrifice or a trashing. Brookman — whose relationship with Maud while she was alive had been emphatically corporeal and secular — uses her death as a vehicle for his own spiritual regeneration. The illusion of Brookman’s love for her may have provided (to use Stone’s telling word) the “occasion” for Maud’s murder, but her death itself effects “nothing less than a renewal of his moral existence.” Eddie Stack, who had thought of Maud in life as a “miracle child of form and grace,” can find no such significance in his daughter’s killing: Maud, he thinks, had been “crushed on the sidewalk like a roach.” So the man who is capable of transubstantiating an accidental death into a sacrifice ends up doing so for his own profoundly selfish purposes, in order to rededicate himself to his wife and get his life back on the rails. The man who cannot rededicates himself to alcohol and pills and his own ancient rage, and dies.
The chasm between these two perspectives forces us to reexamine some of the most foundational questions about why we read and write fiction in the first place. For Stone, as we have seen, writing is about the transmission of acquired experience. And yet experience, on its own, is never enough. The writer who is invested in experience qua experience is akin to the farmer who farms for the sake of eating dirt. We are interested in harvesting some kind of meaning from these experiences; otherwise, what’s the point? Stone’s uncompromising commitment to narrative Gnosticism, however, leads him to tantalize us with the prospect of a Truth that remains just out of reach. In the final conversation of the novel, Jo Carr observes:
“History … history is poisoned by claims on underlying truth. We’ve both been burned by people who think they represent them. Underlying truth. Do you think any of these things are objectively out there?”
“Jo, on a scale of yes and no, I would have to say no.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Robert Stone has left the building. Or maybe he was never even here. Death of the Black-Haired Girl is a taut, forceful, lacerating novel, full of beautifully crafted language, overflowing with significance, empty of meaning. Just as the creator intended.
Ira Wells teaches American literature at the University of Toronto and is the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism.