Robert Stone won the National Book Award in 1975, for his second novel, Dog Soldiers. Since then, he's twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and nominated for or the recipient of a florist's display of other honors. Recently, when I asked some writers and English professors at a party to name the best novel ever written about Hollywood, Stone's Children of Light was the top choice.
But when I mention Stone to non-writers, I get a blank. Maybe they know the name. They haven't read him. They haven't experienced the dread of Jerusalem in his political thriller, Damascus Gate. Or the racial politics (and, I'll give you, hoary structure) of 1960s New Orleans in A Hall of Mirrors. Or they haven't befriended Ken Kesey, as Stone recounts doing in his all-in-good-fun memoir, Prime Green, from 2007.
Maybe it's because Stone has published regularly, but not prolifically. He's not Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth. His vision is often directed outward from the United States — Central America, or sailing around the world — rather than inward, unlike Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison or Thomas Pynchon. In my opinion, Stone is a better fit with his generation's Western-state writers: Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas McGuane, Annie Proulx. Then again, Stone's bio says he now lives in New York City.
The latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, may improve his standing — who knows? It's a good novel, interesting on several levels, and satisfyingly dark. Like some of Stone's other works, the book cultivates the fashion of genre — in this case, a crime thriller — but that's mostly for fashion's sake. There's a plot, and a whodunit, but they're hardly the point.
Though judging by the book's cover art and title, I'm sure his publisher would love you to think that Stone is trying to one-up Stieg Larsson. He's not.
Maud Stack is a college student at an elite New England university. She's having an affair with one of her instructors, which the professor intends to end — so he says. We learn this in the first pages. From there, Maud's death seems inevitable — not just because of the title — and also lackluster. Instead, our interest is hooked by other characters' glinting, complex moral decisions. People who make sacrifices for their devotions. Rational people who do irrational things. The madness of religious zealotry, the everyday lives of insane people. Basically, all the little stuff that goes into plain old human evil.
Stone writes, about Maud's death, "Bad luck, sure, but you could see and breathe punition and guilt. It made you suspect that what they said might be true, that somewhere in time, maybe ages before, somebody must have done something to make this happen to people the way it happened to cats and dogs."
So this may sound banal, a little sadistic, but really, the pleasure of Death of the Black-Haired Girl isn't plot. It's people-watching: observing characters miscommunicate, misbehave, and in some cases act noble. There are problems with Stone's dialogue — at times, it's too fabricated — and, by the end, the story doesn't build to much. But along the way, the characters who stock the novel are richly drawn, satisfying to watch struggle in their efforts to defend themselves.
Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, it's a pleasure to watch.