Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

New Release: Death of the Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

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Surely Robert Stone is one of the best writers of individual scenes in all of our literature – think of the scene in A Flag for Sunrise where Tabor shoots his dogs, or in Children of Light where members of a film crew mistake the phrase “Bosch’s Garden” for “Butch’s Garden”, which they speculate is an S&M joint in Los Angeles.  His newest, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, doesn’t contain anything quite this intense or funny; nor does it aim for the kind of grand, sweeping scope that some of his earlier novels do.  Neither of these is necessarily a negative – this novel definitely signals a different kind of ambition and aspiration in Stone’s writing, with some very short chapters and a direct, easy to read clarity in the prose that I cannot recall seeing in Stone before  (The (admirable) tendency to improve the reader’s vocabulary, as evidenced by the use of words such as “salvific” and “palliative”, remains.)
And yet, as most important novelists do, Stone here returns to his standard toolbox again and again: mysticism, spiritualism, nuns and priests, a crisis of faith and belief, drugs and booze, abortion, violence, a white male protagonist steeped in the humanities, a tortured heroine coming apart at the seams, lunatics and fanatics swirling all around the principal action, two characters who cruise through most of the novel in separate worlds in preparation for a collision with each other at the end, etc. - so that the result is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  Stone’s habitual use of cross cutting in his narratives is here extended to seven (!) different characters’ points of view; this may seem like a lot but it’s hard to see how this ‘new’ Stone might have been able to tell the story effectively by employing only two or three POVs. 
This novel is probably more rewarding and more intellectually profitable to a reader than all the books on most of today’s bestseller lists combined.  This being a quick blog, I’ll just point out a few reasons why I say this below, then I’ll make one criticism that is applicable not only to this novel in particular but to almost every piece of fiction I’ve ever been able to find that has abortion as one of its major themes. 
1. At one point Steve Brookman, a professor involved in an affair with his young student Maud Stack, reflects on his eleven year marriage to Elsa Bezeindenhout; a little further on in the story McCallum, an undertaker, observes that he hasn’t had a drink in eleven years.  These two characters never intersect within the story, but the reference to the identical span of time that has elapsed in their lives is a powerful way to demonstrate how seemingly disconnected events – whether a reader feels they are events of pre -determined fate or of random chance – build up to the same boiling point that is the centerpiece of the fiction.  Such different roads lead to the same final destination!
2. There are many points of commonality between this novel and Stone’s other work, for example Children of Light, which I was quickly re-re-re-reading along with Death of the Black-Haired Girl for comparison purposes (like Death, Children is comparatively short compared to Stone’s other novels).  In both novels Rosalind, from As You Like It, plays a role.  In both, Hieronymous Bosch is referenced by a major character.  The somewhat uncommon phrase “black-haired girl” appears in the earlier novel, a description of Helena on the set of The Awakening.  (The Awakening shows up in Bay of Souls too.)  Finally, compare this passage from the earlier novel:

                        …she danced beyond his reach.  He advanced toward her, his
                        arms spread as though it were basketball and he was guarding her.
with this from the new one:
                        Maud tried to pass him , feinted on one leg, made her move on the
other.  He kept his hands out, trying to keep himself between her and his front door.
It’s the identical image. As I’ve written elsewhere in essays on Bellow and DeLillo, great authors often use repeating motifs and images in the same ways that film directors often do.  It’s as if they have an idealized Platonic Form in mind that they’re trying to crystallize in their art. 
            3. The death of the black-haired girl of the title, Maud Stack, is similar to that of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho insofar as her death occurs before the halfway point of the story; yet, she dominates.  She is by far the most vivid of all the characters, and certainly her personality is the most forceful – she writes acerbic, pugnacious columns for the college newspaper, not only the one mocking the anti-abortion movement that serves as the book’s Macguffin, but also one about the city’s moving a bus stop away from congregations of the homeless (her article argues that this is bias against the poor and the homeless).  (Re: Macguffin.  There is a principal character named Shelby Magoffin, who is herself a kind of semi-Macguffin.  Like much of Stone’s work, this novel is extremely articulate about the cinema.)  Maud is seized by the kind of seething political rage that seems to get into a lot of young people today.
Yet neither Maud nor her lover Brookman can be called the most sympathetic character in the novel.  That honor goes to her father, Eddie Stack, a retired New York cop who can’t stop saying “I was Maud’s father” after her death – as if he somehow stopped being her father at some identifiable point in time.
4. Readers familiar with A Flag for Sunrise no doubt remember Sister Justin, who seems to be getting a reincarnation here as Jo Carr.  It’s hard to tell if this is just Stone having a little fun, or what – maybe the overall structure of the story requires an ex nun battling with her faith (and she knows a little something about what academics call French Theory into the bargain!).  This is a very interesting phenomenon way beyond the scope of a fast blog but it’s the kind of thing a serious researcher or student can really sink their teeth into.
5. On Maud’s article, a pugnacious reply and rebuttal to the anti abortion crowd (Stone writes about this frequently - think of the story that kicks off BEAR AND HIS DAUGHTER, or the character Dolvin in OUTERBRIDGE REACH) and their arguments – this kind of scorched earth conduct on both sides obviously does nobody anywhere any good.  Sadly, I think Stone’s depiction of the issue in the novel is pretty accurate (I don’t spend a lot of time on college campuses or at abortion clinics.  I’m going by what I see and read in the news.)  I can’t help but wonder what Maud’s response would be to a powerful anti-abortion argument that is wholly secular and makes no appeal to religion whatsoever, for example the famous paper by Don Marquis entitled Why Abortion Is Immoral.  I think that kind of dense, careful philosophical argument is hard to write about in, and to incorporate into, imaginative literature.  That’s probably why any time we see abortion taken up in films or in fiction we see only screaming matches and disturbing images, wild eyed moonbats against foaming at the mouth wingnuts.  It just makes for better drama. 
Summing up, this novel seems to me to be a case of Stone blazing some new and different trails in some ways while remaining true to some of his successful strategies of the past at the same time.     There’s a lot of important insights on some major issues of our time, and maybe even on some issues that transcend particular times and places. 

1 comment:

  1. Players: "He went to the smoking area, where he saw Frank McKechnie standing at the edge of a noisy group, biting skin from his thumb."
    The Names (about Frank Volterra): "He wore dark glasses and kept biting skin from the edge of his thumb.”
    Cosmopolis: “He sat down and looked at Chin, who was biting dead skin at the side of his thumbnail.”
    Point Omega: “ “Bites the skin off the edge of his thumbnail, always the right thumb, still do it, loose piece of dead skin, that’s how I know who I am.” “