The setting of Robert Stone’s new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is the vale of tears. This campus novel transcends genre largely through the psychological effect of place. Not so much as a New England college town but as the trial ground where acts of faith, betrayal, retributive justice, and redemption take place, and where, of course, evil constantly threatens.
The plot centers on the adulterous affair that Professor Steven Brookman has with his beautiful, brilliant and possessive student, Maud Stack. The title leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the affair. Vehicular homicide ends their parting quarrel. Her death is at the center of Stone’s meditations on love, the sanctity of life, abortion, vengeance, and fate – providence if you will, in the Divine Economy. Some critics have mentioned that they find the central relationship between Brookman and Maud insufficiently developed. But frankly I found myself too bound up in the peripheral characters who form a virtual chorus of speculation and assertion on deep matters of conscience, to be too concerned with the affair. The moral geography of the novel is never less than that of a battlefield, with real weapons and fatal or near fatal encounters.
The sense that the horizontal events of earthly life intersect with the verticals of the spiritual radiates throughout the book.
The character Jo Carr is the college’s resident counselor and friend of Maud. She is also a laicized nun who labored in Liberation Theology fields in South America. We find her early in the work rejoicing in the odd circumstance that sees her baptizing a cancer-ridden child threatened by sudden death. “. . . her heart was soaring. Any good at all, she thought. The hope of it even. Even the slim fancied appearance of an invisible notion was better than nothing, suggested some significance for naked pain.”
In a later episode, after Maud’s death, Jo and her friend Mary Pick, wife of the college dean, unite their efforts, and Mary’s considerable influence in the Church, to assure that Maud’s ashes will rest beside her mother’s. The narrator reflects upon their history within the Church: “ Jo and Mary had each soldiered through the unraveling ranks of the Catholic religion on various of its forced marches through the abysmal sleep of reason. They had both borne the guidon Credo quia absurdum.” Stone’s prose here, the paradoxical phrase “forced marches through the abysmal sleep of reason,” points to the demands of faith in the secular age, even to reliance on the Credo transcending reason.
Ellie, the betrayed wife of Steven Bookman, is pregnant, wonderfully it seems, after so many failed attempts. She asserts to her husband: “I am only who I am . . . If you let your pride dishonor me and my . . . children, I will have to feel my way. I will have to feel His pleasure, and if you dishonor me – and in my benighted state I think you dishonor Him through me – I don’t know what will be commanded.” This admonition falls somewhat hollowly on Steven’s ears. He will learn that we act sub specie aeternitatis. The author, god-like in his own creation, takes Steven to an eerie reckoning on a Siberian plain, where the natural world assaults him with its own supernatural force.
Maud’s death is falsely linked to the outrage occasioned by an article she wrote shamelessly mocking anti-abortion protestors and ridiculing the Catholic Church. Her vehemence appears to be the obverse of the fervent devotion she expressed toward Catholicism as a teenager. This reversal allows Stone to lay out if not the issues, than the passions that surround abortion, moving the narrative and characterization into sinister areas of conscience and soul as exemplified in The Mourner, perhaps a priest, perhaps a crank. He visits Jo asking to speak to Maud, threatening in his very lowering smiles. For Jo he is the reincarnation of a rebel priest she knew in South America clearly capable of murder in the name of innocence and right.
Yet again, Mary Pick testifies. “I hold sacred what is declared sacred. The law of the state cannot justify abortion. It isn’t the law of the state that makes human life sacred. It can’t determine what is mortal sin or blasphemy. It can’t punish spiritual crimes. It can’t presume to speak for God.” Her sanity and integrity assert themselves in acts of healing.
I have left alone the dilemma of Eddie Stack, Maud’s retired policeman father. A widower, Eddie is doubly embittered, ruined by smoking (emphysema) and drink, he mocks himself even as he attempts to regain his pride by avenging Maud’s death. His trial of self-laceration harkens back to Graham Green’s Scobie, yet Eddie is lost in the blackness of despair, capable in the end only of rescinding a sentence of death on Brookman.
There is little sense of the Campus novel as the events of the plot work themselves out. The terrain is the very mountains of the mind so evocatively summoned by another writer treading the line between the timeless and time. There is something vertiginous in Stone’s achievement.