Robert Stone portrays an affair between a professor and his student

Death of the Black-Haired Girl. Robert Stone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 293 pages.
Death of the Black-Haired Girl. Robert Stone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 293 pages.

Meet the author

Who: Robert Stone

When: 8 p.m. Dec. 17

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Cost: Free

Info: 305-442-4408 or

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.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">An Idea Whose Time Has Come:</span> Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.. Todd Purdum. Holt. 398 pages. $30.


    Book assesses the impact of the Civil Rights Act 50 years later

    The veterans of the civil rights movement gathered at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Texas this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and assess its impact. Then the living embodiment of that legislation walked on stage.

  • What do you recommend?

    “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton — it’s a book built around characters and plots inspired by astrological principles. It’s a neo-Victorian murder mystery and a mere 832 pages long, and it made 28-year-old Catton the youngest person to win the coveted Man Booker Prize. The voice is natural, easy to understand and ambitious; she’s a novelist who is seeking to reclaim the authorial, a writer who seeks to entertain and enlighten.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">The Boom:</span> How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World. Russell Gold. Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $26.


    Book considers the pros and cons of fracking

    Author considers both sides of the controversial issue.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category