At first blush, Robert Stone’s first novel in a decade appears to be an uncharacteristically straightforward, tightly plotted psychological thriller.
The doomed title character is Maud Stack, a brilliant, impulsive student at Amesbury, an elite, buttoned-down, New England college that could easily pass for Yale or Amherst. Maud, who has already left behind her working-class roots and devout Catholic upbringing in Queens, is entangled in a not-very-clandestine affair with her bored, reckless faculty advisor, Steven Brookman. The professor, whose bio resembles Stone’s, has transcended his own hardscrabble upbringing, spending formative years in an orphanage and the military before finding sanctuary as a writer in the academy.
Brookman decides to end the affair and re-dedicate his focus on his pregnant wife and their young daughter. The rejection sends Maud careening. She fires off an inflammatory screed for the student newspaper attacking the anti-abortion movement. Amid the inevitable death threats, she briefly flees the campus. Her downward spiral ends abruptly, in a drunken, raging tussle with Brookman in front of his wife and a crowd of hockey fans departing a nearby arena. She breaks free and is struck by a passing car. A few witnesses (falsely) claim Brookman pushed her into the path of the fatal hit-and-run.
As the criminal investigation runs its course, and the campus sex scandal metastasizes, Stone stuffs the narrative with secondary characters and plotlines. The novel brims with structural misdirection and MacGuffins (Maud’s roommate, an indie actress and one-time child-bride from Appalachia, is even named Shelby MacGoffin). Shelby’s schizy, delusional stalker of an ex-husband, prodded by an opportunistic fundamentalist preacher, confesses to killing Maud, even though witnesses can place him in Kentucky at the time. Campus counselor Jo Carr, a revolutionary Central American nun in her youth, is haunted by the vision of a shadowy, violent priest from her radical past who may have come to Amesbury to exhort the anti-abortion zealots.
Stone, a part-time Key West resident, mines many of the themes that have been present throughout his career: religious intolerance and blind faith; the power of darkness, evil and sin; the quest for salvation, redemption and transcendence.
He eviscerates the conservative priests who refuse to let Maud’s father bury his daughter’s ashes next to his late, devout wife. He’s kinder to Brookman’s wife, Ellie, who still clings to much of the faith from her upbringing in a remote Mennonite sect in Saskatchewan.
Stone nails the town-and-gown setting. The campus is an oak-paneled oasis of privilege, populated by self-righteous students, backbiting professors and haughty administrators. The once-thriving factory town has become a gothic sea of decay, rife with dangerous taverns and abundant heroin. Madness, another common theme throughout Stone’s career, permeates the tale as homeless mentally ill ghosts stumble past the anti-abortion protestors and Andean pan flutists.
Tension builds for an inevitable, armed showdown on campus between the dead girl’s father and her adviser-lover. The anti-climax rings bittersweet, especially from a writer like Stone, whose back catalog is filled with cathartic spasms of violence, random and intentional.
Over time, Death of the Black-Haired Girl will probably rank on a tier below the mastery of Stone’s classics — Dog Soldiers, A Hall of Mirrors and Outerbridge Reach. But it is still a trenchant, engaging read from a literary giant who, at 76, is once again operating near the top of his considerable skills.
Larry Lebowitz is a writer in Miami.