(Editor’s note: This review comes from Steven Nester, now a resident of Austerlitz, New York, and the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine.)
Robert Stone might be one of the best and last of the postwar literary adventure writers. Taking over from Ernest Hemingway, whose lion-shooting calm and whiskey-muscled brawn are larger-than-life qualities that once held a character’s mettle to the fire, Stone has updated morality in crisis, pitting corrupt cops against drug dealers racing in a cross-country shoot out (Dog Soldiers); single-handedly sailing the circumference of the globe (Outerbridge Reach), and maneuvering through political and religious turmoils (A Flag for Sunrise and Damascus Gate). These are the scenarios wherein characters’ moral guidance systems are tested, while the world falls apart around them.
Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which reads more like a police procedural with a bit of Graham Greene’s lapse of faith tossed in, is Stone’s new, eighth novel, and takes place on the campus of an elite eastern liberal arts college, the very seat of higher standards. University is supposed to offer the perfect world — safe from the horrors of reality, while allowing students to interact with it amid a modicum of safety. Yet the violence of the real world is not far away and the boundaries blur. “It was never certain whether tags were left by street kids or art students,” Stone observes of graffiti. And once you invite the vampire into your house he’s free to come and go as he pleases.
Steven Brookman is a brilliant and careless professor who abruptly ends a romantic relationship with Maud Stack, his equally brainy but tragically naïve student. She’s just let the vampire in by publishing a vitriolic attack on abortion protesters in a local paper and by allowing herself to fall in love with Brookman.
A rebel against her own upbringing, Maud had the type of “antique Catholicism Brookman thought had disappeared from literate circles a generation ago, thin-lipped and bitter, to every man his cross. Now she dealt the same card reversed. Armed with the childish energy of a parochial school minx, reciting every dirty word that’s ever occurred to her.” Maud hasn’t made the connection between cause and effect, and that she might have to bear personal responsibility for her actions. “Maud wanted fulfilling experiences,” Stone explains. “She wanted them for free.”
The anti-abortion demonstrators are angered to the point of violence, and Maud’s life may very well be in danger as a result. Finally, in a drunken confrontation with Brookman in front of his home on a busy sidewalk, Maud dies under the wheels of a carelessly driven car. Her death stands for nothing; it’s the random hand grenade that’s tossed into the lives of those who knew her, leaving them to sort out their culpability, real and imagined, along with the need to make sense of the event, while the reader views morality and ethics from the different angles of each character’s perspective.
John Clammer, the bible-thumping schizophrenic who is the ex-husband of Maud’s roommate, soon acknowledges having committed the murder to his pastor, the ironically named Reverend Fumes. Fumes sees an opportunity for glorification by taking Clammer under his wing and guiding him through the process of confession and redemption. Meanwhile, Jo Carr, a lapsed nun and now a student advisor at the college, sees her past returning to haunt her after she thinks she’s spotted a rebel priest she had known from her radical past in South America stalking the campus.
Viewing Maud’s corpse in the morgue, her old partner Lou Salmone mordantly observes that “the mixture of mortified humanity and disinfectant somehow conveyed a judgement.” Everyone is guilty of something, the line conjectures, and the police most want to pin the young woman’s death on Brookman. Might he deliberately have pushed her in front of an oncoming vehicle? Ellie, Brookman’s pregnant wife and a devout Mennonite (who “believed, however humbly, that her course in life was directed by God”), proves to be the calm in this mounting storm, perhaps because she’d moored herself to a higher power, and has therefore been spared the searching self-reflection of those who have only themselves as guides.
Maud’s father, Eddie Stack, is an old-school New York cop. Crime-solving to him is simply a matter of finding the most likely culprit and running him down; and if that fails, revenge is a pretty good Plan B. Indeed, he plans to avenge his daughter by taking Brookman’s life. But when the two meet, Brookman is armed, anticipating “some kind of blood debt, something to be endured as a result of what happened.” He also viewed such a confrontation as a challenge to his thrill-seeking side, which is the essence of his irresponsible character.
Brookman’s adventures are mostly manufactured. He rock-climbs, hunts, and seems to leap from bed to bed in a single bound. In the aftermath of Maud’s tragedy he goes unpunished, and leaves his professorship to research and write a book about Siberia. There he has the one true adventure in this novel, and it takes place mostly in his imagination. Disoriented in the blackness of a frozen Siberian night, his shoulder injured during a fall, Brookman believes he’s close to death. His lack of spine and his cowardice border on vanity. He drops the pretense of risk-taking man of action and screams into the empty Siberian tundra, hoping that his needle of a life in an enormous haystack of humanity will be found, equaling the miracle of someone hearing him in the first place. ◊