By Gerald Duff
Acclaimed literary fiction writer Robert Stone attempts an academic novel in Death of the Black-Haired Girl with
mixed results. A species unlike his previous
books, it enthralls in some ways and disappoints in others. This curious work incorporates most of the genre’s requisites: centering
on a higher-education campus where a married professor with children is sleeping with a
gorgeous coed, the administration is inept
and unsympathetic, the politics are local and
Machiavellian, and the plot involves embarrassments, crimes, discoveries, and firings.
But Stone omits one element academic novels
tend to revel in: satire or other humor. He
stresses the bleakest of views about human
nature, in individuals, relationships and
groups, while raising numerous serious questions about contemporary America. This
somberness means not a single smile, much
less a chuckle, from readers; devotees of the
art form might hesitate to rate Death of the
Black-Haired Girl alongside high-water marks
by Kingsley Amis, Mary McCarthy, David
Lodge, Jane Smiley, Bernard Malamud, and
Joyce Carol Oates, among others. However,
such soberness turns Death of the Black-Haired
Girl into an ambitious page-turner: a murder
mystery within an academic novel within a novel of ideas. Stone has a lot
on his mind, maybe too much, though his reach impresses.
The title character is Maud Stack, a striking and talented undergraduate
whose writing chops rival her model looks. As the novel opens on the
prestigious New England campus in a rundown town, her affair with her
English professor, Steven Brookman, reaches a breaking point. He decides
to call it off due to his anthropologist wife’s pregnancy with their second
child. Passionate, high-strung and impulsive, and declaring abiding love,
Maud lashes out in anger and defiance at Brookman. Since he is rough
around the edges, harbors a checkered and philandering past, and specializes in adventure writing, Brookman initially enjoyed her mercurial charisma, attracted not merely to her bodily charms but also to what he considers her wild innocence. Maud’s eventual public displays of pique inform
the college community of the tryst and fallout.
Willful and idealistic, Maud, born Catholic, draws further undue attention to herself when, trying to impress Brookman, she publishes in the college newspaper a scathing attack on local radical antiabortionists. One of
them, mysterious and menacing, prompts Maud’s empathetic middle-aged
school counselor, Jo Carr, a former nun who in youth conducted outreach
in South America, to wonder if he’s the same dangerous revolutionary
priest linked to decades-old brutalities there. Further potential dread looms
in a town schizophrenic who habitually frequents school grounds. And the
night Maud drunkenly confronts Brookman outside his home in an altercation that turns physical and spills into the street, a melee erupts on the
block after a rowdy intercollegiate hockey game. So when a hit-and-run
vehicle kills the stumbling Maud, many people could be responsible, including Brookman, who is suspected of pushing her in front of it.
Finding out what killed her, literally, but also figuratively, propels the ac-
tion; Stone is interested most of all in moral, psychological, cultural and, par-
ticularly, spiritual implications. Characters representing the Roman Catholic
Church, Mennonites, Pentecostals, believers, those lapsed in their faith, ag-
nostics and atheists try to make sense of the tragedy. And joining the authori-
ties on the case is Maud’s dying father, Eddie, a retired New York City cop;
a widower and alcoholic, this bitter mourner carries a soft spot for his only,
beautiful, smart, wayward child and worries that his work-related and
personal sins somehow damned him and
cursed her. Who should be held accountable
for Maud’s death? What is due penalty?
From midpoint of the tale(s) onward, Stone
follows those invested in discovering the
truth, assessing the damage, serving penance,
and finding ways to go on living.
On the one hand, Stone’s narrative powers
and chiseled sentences remain as potent in
Death of the Black-Haired Girl as in earlier nov-
els, such as the National Book Award-win-
ning Dog Soldiers, the Pulitzer Prize-finalist
A Flag for Sunrise, and the bestseller Damascus
Gate. This latest volume is suspenseful and
well-written. Plot twists surprise and heated
exchanges sting. And Stone emphasizes how,
as one character observes, “people always
want their suffering to mean something.”
For some figures, grace, albeit muted, occurs.
Not for Brookman. When grading a class
assignment on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor
Faustus, he notices that Maud highlights
Mephistopheles’ remark: “Why, this is hell, nor
am I out of it.” Later, he applies it to himself.
However Brookman defines his world, in ac-
ademia or through marriage, he is doomed to
seek salvation, however realized, alone and
what solace oth-
ers may offer.
On the other
ments arise and
names in a saga that strives for thoughtful realism. The central players are
one-dimensional: the live-wire black-haired girl, her colorful indepen-
dent-movie actress roommate Shelby Magoffin, the louche English profes-
sor, the grizzled retired cop facing his own demons to honor the legacy of
his progeny, the earnest college counselor/disillusioned nun. Secondary
characters are bald devices to symbolize stances and raise tension. And
Stone wavers between meditating on lost hopes in an existential universe
and expounding on Big Ideas ranging from family to love, self-worth to
mercy, and obsession to addiction, tacking on economic class and celebri-
ty culture, expanding to ethics, civics, even 9/11, and returning again and
again to religion, guilt, atonement — and academia.
Death of the Black-Haired Girl is shorter than Stone’s other novels. If his
pursuits here come off as vacillating and superficial, how characters manage blighted expectations while revealing American sensibilities lends the
story some lasting depth. And the book reads well sentence by sentence.
This unusual academic noir winds up a worthy but minor addition to
Stone’s laudable canon.
Gerald Duff (McKendree University) has published 18 books across genres.
The most recent: A Crop of Circles (Black Wyrm Publishing), a science-fiction
novel, and Memphis Mojo (Lamar University Press), a crime novel, both in
2014; and the literary works Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League
(University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press), a novel, and Decoration Day and
Other Short Stories (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), both in 2012.
Duff taught English at Vanderbilt University, Kenyon College and Johns
Hopkins and held administrative posts at Goucher College, Rhodes College and McKendree. Go
online to geraldduff.com; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Death of the
By Robert Stone
288 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$25 hardcover; $14.95 paperback or ebook.