Behind the knowing air of Robert Stone’s brilliant, mysterious new novel, a vision lurks of America as a Puritanical, death-haunted country, where casual sins of the flesh stand in for crimes far more ancient and profound.
If that sounds too grim and portentous, remember that this is Stone, whose characters have hurtled through 20th-century proxy wars and post-hippie nightmares like Conrad and Hemingway on acid. Missing at first glance may be the lush, artful menace of “A Flag for Sunrise” or the Kabbalistic fireworks of “Damascus Gate,” but Stone offers something just as entertaining and complex: a riff on the procedural whose pleasures are deeper than its lean page-count suggests.
Stone uncoils these pleasures with taut, often graceful economy. The plot originates in the real-life death of Yale student Suzanne Jovin, stabbed near campus minutes after handing in her senior thesis on Osama bin Laden in 1998. Police identified her adviser as a suspect, giving vent to a host of conspiracy theories, irresistible to a writer of Stone’s cast of mind.
In his fictional version, Maud Stack, the beautiful, wild, willful daughter of an alcoholic New York detective, suffers in the final throes of an affair with Professor Steve Brookman, an erudite adventure writer whose “colorfully rendered recountings of early deprivations made him an exciting figure to the college’s students.” To Brookman, Maud’s “youth, unquietness, intelligence, passion and lack of judgment were irresistible.” Of course, he is married, and because this is not your typical campus novel, Mrs. Brookman is a statuesque anthropologist raised by Canadian Mennonites. Her frontier background bequeaths to her not only a clear-eyed, sturdy reaction to her husband’s infidelity but also a line to the parallel, mystical world that always seems thrillingly close to impinging on the rational thrust of the book.
Stone’s characters, among whom Maud stands as a touching and tragic example, yearn to know and recover that spiritual world, but they always fall short. In a desperate desire to impress Brookman with her cleverness and nerve, Maud recklessly pens an editorial in the student newspaper attacking the hypocrisy of antiabortion protesters who picket the university hospital. Maud’s cruel screed, the flipside of the pacific devotion into which she was born, sets in motion a series of events that end with her dead, hit by a car right in front of the Brookmans’ house.
In some other procedural, an investigation would follow with red herrings and hard-boiled banter. But this is Robert Stone. On seeing Maud’s body, the lead investigator thinks of Original Sin and remembers “a famous person had said, ‘Character is fate.’ ” Stone is obviously after something more, and so he gives us Maud’s roommate, a B-movie actress with a crazy, Pentecostal ex-husband and a sinister priest who appears in the counseling office of an ex-nun, Jo Carr. Jo counseled Maud and knows the dark forces her graphic editorial has unleashed. She thinks she recognizes the sinister priest from the Andes, where she witnessed a revolutionary “struggle toward mutual extermination so savage . . . that the very phrase ‘civil war’ seemed an ironic euphemism.”
Little by little, as the false leads pile up, they seem to provide a philosophical menu of solutions to the murder. “Death of the Black-Haired Girl” starts to feel less like Elmore Leonard and more like a descendant of Hawthorne, a moral fable bent on revelation. Stone’s characters struggle, institutions fail in their mission to define and interpret “the arcane systems beyond whose mere appearances the heart of the cosmos beat.” Even the secular humanist college labors under a curse, dating to its origins as a seat of Protestant teaching, “presuming to send forth its light, a few homilies, to doomed praying Indians.” Is this because it holds a special place in the training of statesmen and spies going out to “rule their cloudy imperium”?
Over Stone’s novel hangs the dust of Sept. 11, 2001, the ultimate blowback. In his self-lacerating estimation, Maud’s father, the acutely sympathetic Eddie Stack, may have given in to the forces of corruption on that terrible day and brought on his daughter’s death. No matter who drove the car that killed Maud, there is plenty of guilt to go around, but which solution are we to believe? A standard-issue interpretation of the wages of empire? Payback for ripping our land from its native inhabitants? Judeo-Christian moral retribution in a fallen world? What is America’s secret culture as revealed by Robert Stone? After reading this harrowing novel, one is tempted to say: all of the above.
Saunders’s political thriller, “Ministers of Fire,” will be released in paperback in March.
DEATH OF THE BLACK-HAIRED GIRL
By Robert Stone
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
281 pp. $25