Robert Stone has long been a big-picture novelist. "Dog Soldiers," which won a 1975 National Book Award, involves a "journalist of sorts" who tries to smuggle three kilos of heroin to Northern California from Saigon; the magnificent "Damascus Gate" (1998), meanwhile, offers a kaleidoscopic look at Jerusalem as millennial proving ground. And yet over the last 15 years or so Stone appears to have lost his way a bit, pulling back from these epic landscapes to offer stories that are narrower, even small. His last novel, "Bay of Souls," which came out a decade ago, reads almost like a Stone pastiche, and his 2007 memoir of the 1960s, "Prime Green," may be most notable for what it doesn't tell.
That's understandable, for Stone's great subject — the chasm between our desires, our dreams, our longings and a universe that is chaotic if not outright malevolent — is not an easy one; his best writing never blinks in the face of that abyss. "Oh Frank, you lamb," an abortion activist taunts a priest in the story "Miserere," which opens his 1997 collection "Bear and His Daughter." "What did your poor mama tell you? Did she say that a world with God was easier than one without him? … Because that would be mistaken, wouldn't it[?]"
Stone's eighth novel, "Death of the Black-Haired Girl" offers a return of sorts to the questions raised by "Miserere," since the novel traverses similar ground. The story of a charismatic undergraduate named Maud Stack and her relationship with one of her professors, Steven Brookman, it takes place at a prestigious college in an old New England mill town, where Maud, stirred to outrage by the protesters she sees at a local abortion clinic, writes a scathing column for the school paper, accusing God of being the most prolific abortionist.
"Yes, friends," she insists, "twenty percent of pregnancies spontaneously abort. And lots of those who don't aren't nearly as lovable as the ones in the signs right-to-lifers carry."
Accompanying her article are graphic images of birth defects — hydrolethalus syndrome, Meckel-Gruber syndrome — that get, in her view, to the heart of the issue, which is why these infants (or anyone, for that matter) should be saved.
To that point, "Death of the Black-Haired Girl" appears to be taking a predictable, even unfortunate, tack. Maud is headstrong, in love with Brookman, who is (of course) married and anticipating his second child. He wants to end the relationship but can't bring himself to do so; Maud wants him to leave his family. There are class issues, since Maud is the daughter of a New York policeman, while Brookman enjoys the privileges of the academy. This leads to the usual, depressing power dynamics: a professor engaged in what he considers a dalliance and a student increasingly unwilling to let go.
And yet, just when we think we know where this is leading, Stone opens up the book. Maud's article, ill-advised and strident — "[s]ometimes the college could be an incredibly mean place," Stone writes; "when the kids reflected it they had the sharp language and the intelligence but no sense and no mercy" — becomes a fulcrum around which "Death of the Black-Haired Girl" takes unanticipated shape. Her relationship with Brookman turns out to be important primarily as a catalyst: a trigger not just for what happens between them but for the novel's other characters as well.
Stone emphasizes this by shifting perspective from Maud and Brookman to, among others, Maud's father, Ed, battling alcohol and emphysema, and a former nun named Jo Carr, now an advisor at the college but who, three decades earlier in South America, "had seen a struggle toward mutual extermination so savage, fueled by such violent hatred between races and classes, that the very phrase 'civil war' seemed an ironic euphemism."
As is often the case with Stone, such an observation fulfills both a narrative and a metaphoric function; the struggle at the college, particularly in regard to Maud and Brookman, can be savage and violent too. Maud's column ignites subterranean fuses of hatred that turn the campus into a flash point; "Look," Jo tells her. "People who think they have all the answers will always think they have a right to hurt people who don't believe them.
"That's the world, Maud. That's human nature."
It's almost unbelievable that a piece of writing in a college paper could stir up so much rancor, but this is part of the point also, that things get blown out of proportion, that we never understand what we unleash. "[I]t almost certainly would have been fine in the end with a little luck and a little less of God's appalling mercy," Jo reflects, and yet the power of this novel is that it isn't fine, that it can never be fine, that from the moment we see Maud and Brookman together, we recognize how bitterly things will end.
Call it foreboding, call it a sense of the world as a dangerous place, in which it's not that God does not exist so much as that he has abandoned us. This is a key faith (if we want to call it that) of Stone's fiction, that we are adrift in a universe where our best intentions are not enough and more often we are governed by our worst.
That in turn makes "Death of the Black-Haired Girl" less a campus novel than an existential one in which the characters are driven by "an ancient anger … a sense that [they] had been born out of line, raised wrong, lived deserving of some unknowable retribution that it was [their] duty and honor to face down."
What happens when we understand that all the things we take for granted are uncertain, that some genies, once let out of the bottle, can never be put back? What happens when we confront that what we see as order is really just chaos with a different face? This has been the subject of Stone's writing from the beginning, and if "Death of the Black-Haired Girl," with its university setting, appears somewhat less exotic, that does not make its vision small. Rather, with this spare and unsettling novel, Stone has vividly returned to form.
Death of the Black-Haired Girl
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 282 pp., $25
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