Over the past few years I’ve slowly become aware of Robert Stone. I think it might have been the summer of 2010 that a copy of his novel Dog Soldiers made its way to my bookcase, probably by way of Green Apple Books. Back in 2010 I still had both a west coast book collection and an east coast book collection, and Dog Soldiers was waiting for me in San Francisco when I moved out here for good in 2012. Between then and now, I’ve obtained copies of most of his other novels and have slowly become aware of the fact that he is a bit of a big deal as a novelist, comparable to late-20th-century greats like Styron, Stegner, and Philip Roth (I’ll add Paul Theroux and Norman Rush to this general species of novelist, although they are less well-known than the others I’ve named). The instructor of a workshop I took earlier this year referred to Stone as a “hero” of his, and a few months later I found an interview with Stone in a collection of author interviews published by the Paris Review, in the company of Truman Capote, Faulkner, Alice Munro, and others. Discovering a major writer that I had never heard of before is a bit humbling (though of course I’ll do what I always do in these situations: blame my professors), but it’s also really exciting.
At the same time, I think I chose the worst of Stone’s novels to start with. Death of the Black-Haired Girl is well written enough, but eh. Its plot is part of the genre I call “Clashes of Cultures and Ethnicities in the Modern World” and has a lot in common with movies like Crash and Babel (both of which I like) and with novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and On Beauty (both of which, again, I like). The characters and situations that Stone sets up actually have a lot of potential, but in general the conflicts fizzle out before they reach the climax Stone seemed to be setting up. I’ll explain.
The black-haired girl in the novel is Maud Stack, a student at a small New England college. The novel opens near the tail end of an affair she is having with Steven Brookman, her professor and advisor. Brookman’s wife Ellie – also a professor – is newly pregnant and is about to return to the college after a long sabbatical, and Brookman has pledged to himself that he will break off his affair with Maud and recommit to his wife, his young daughter, and his unborn baby.
At the same time, Maud is in the later stages of researching and writing an article for the school paper. A women’s clinic on the outskirts of the college has been the victim of some fairly aggressive anti-abortion protests recently, and some of the protesters carry photos of fetuses that have been killed and mangled in the abortion process. Maud decides to respond with an aggressively pro-choice article illustrated with some graphic photos of babies born with disfiguring genetic conditions – with the implication that outlawing abortion will force mothers to bring babies with these terrible conditions into the world to suffer and die. Maud tries to leave a copy of her article for Brookman to critique, but he is avoiding her, and the article is published without his feedback and instantly attracts attention, including threats, from individuals in both the college and in the surrounding area.
Other characters include Maud’s roommate Shell, a college student and popular actress in her late twenties, who fled to the college from an isolated fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky, where she has a crazy gun-toting husband named John Clammer, who is known for periodically breaking out of his mental institution; Jo Carr, a former nun who now works as a counselor in the college health clinic; and Eddie Stack, Maud’s father, who was once a decorated police officer but who now lives in seclusion in a nonstop state of grief for Maud’s mother, who died only a few years before.
If you’re familiar with the movies and novels I mentioned above, you can probably make a lot of guesses about how the novel plays out. The central purpose of this kind of novel seems to be to show how individuals who are totally rational and reasonable within the confines of their own lives can unintentionally cause suffering and disaster when they interact with characters whose worldviews are different from theirs, and of course this is a lesson that the world needs to learn – in fact, in the early 21st century it may be the lesson that the world needs to learn. The problem in this novel, though, is that Stone – whose other books, according to reviewer Michiko Kakutani, tend to be “big, ambitious excavations of the human soul” – seems to have chickened out halfway through the book. While there are certainly plenty of conflicts afoot in this novel, some of which come to their climax in satisfying ways (and Maud does die, as the title suggests, a development which, while not exactly ‘satisfying,’ is not particularly upsetting, as she’s a bit of a smugly unappealing cold fish as a character), more than half of the conflicts in this novel deflate slowly or are simply ignored. The novel is set up as an external plot – with lots of unhappy people with guns driving to places where other unhappy people with guns are waiting for them – but Stone seems unwilling or unable to resolve it in this way. Instead, its resolution – or set of resolutions, really – takes place in the minds and/or souls of Jo Carr, Steven Brookman, Eddie Stack, and others, and the result is a novel that doesn’t quite hold together, in spite of its potential.
Most disappointing is the way the John Clammer plot concludes. At roughly the novel’s midpoint, Clammer has broken out of his mental institution and is driving from Kentucky to Massachusetts with a gun (the characters in this novel spend a lot of time driving toward Massachusetts with guns). It’s unclear exactly what his goal is, but he seems to want to assert himself as Shell’s husband and haul her back to Kentucky. Placing a crazy man with several guns in a car headed to the place where the bulk of a novel’s action is taking place seems like a clear, measured signal on the part of the author that the crazy man in question will be part of the novel’s climax. It’s sort of a cartoonish version of Chekhov’s gun rule (any gun on stage in Act One must be fired in Act Three, for those readers who haven’t spent significant chunks of their lives in creative writing workshops). But the thing is – nothing happens. On his way to Massachusetts, Clammer stops at a church, where he tells the minister (untruthfully) that he killed Maud Stack. And then the minister calls the police – and Clammer is quickly arrested and taken back into custody. And that’s it. I know that one way to adhere to a rule of storytelling is to deliberately break it for ironic effect – but I see no sign that Stone is aiming for irony. It seems as if his plot got away with him a little, and he needed to wipe a few key players off the stage in order to heighten his treatment of Eddie Stack, Brookman, Jo Carr, and others.
I don’t recommend this book especially highly, but I do still plan to read others of Stone’s novels – namely Dog Soldiers, Damascus Gate, and A Flag for Sunrise, which critics seem to agree are his best work. In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, he seems to want to focus on the internal lives of his characters, but his attempts to do so are hamstrung by the dynamic exterior plot he has constructed. On the one hand, this is sort of an amateurish thing for such an experienced and celebrated writer to do. On the other hand, we all make mistakes, and I don’t want to come down too hard on Robert Stone. After all, he and I just met – and I certainly don’t want to poison what could certainly be a very pleasant reader/novelist relationship in months and years to come.