When the subject of “best living American novelist” comes up, Robert Stone is on the short list. As long as Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and Toni Morrison draw breath, he will come up near the bottom of that list, but as Stone nears his victory lap after an underrated career, his command of the novel, his mastery, and his roots are showing. Those roots are decidedly New England and extend to Coastal Connecticut. And playing to those roots has made Robert Stone the essential New England novelist. He is to New England what Roth has been to New Jersey: a shrewd and unblinking narrator of misplaced faith and wayward souls.
His latest novel is Death of the Black-Haired Girl. Like the rest of his novels, it is deeper than its plot, uncovering the complexities of faith. In his early work, Dog Soldiers, it was faith in his country. In A Flag for Sunrise, it was faith. In the Haiti-based Bay of Souls, it was a dive into voodoo and the black arts—a sort of meditation on faith in the dark side. Death of the Black-Haired Girl is set in the fictional college town of Amesbury, Massachusetts. It’s a thinly veiled version of Amherst where a sketchy college professor named Steven Brookman is cheating on his wife with one of his students, Maud Stack (the black-haired girl). Brookman learns that his wife is pregnant, and he attempts to break things off with Maud. A drunken Maud goes to the Brookman home and, moments after an argument with him, is killed in a hit-and-run accident in front of his house; Brookman is suspected of pushing her in front of the car.
On the surface it’s a crime thriller. That’s where Stone separates himself from the pack of writers who have raised “intelligent crime” fiction (think Dennis Lehane) to the level of literature. The characters in Death of the Black-Haired Girl ring out with New England spiritual crisis that goes back to Hawthorne and even Robert Frost. Brookman’s wife hails from a strict Mennonite background in the Midwest. She struggles with it. Brookman believes he is compassionate and empathetic in his relationship with a student, while the community is disgusted. And Maud, the black-haired girl, struggles with a graphic antiabortion piece she has just finished for the college newspaper. The right thing, in Stone’s fiction, is defined by the individual, at odds with the individual’s faith and eventually met with consequences by society.
Stone spent time living in a small house on the shore in Stonington in the 90s and has taught at Yale. The coast and the ocean figure most prominently in what might be his best novel, Outerbridge Reach. Its central character, Owen Browne, has had his faith in man and his country shattered in Vietnam. Now he’s ready to put whatever faith he has left into a boat and the fate of the sea. Browne is an Annapolis grad and Vietnam vet, now a sailboat salesman in Connecticut. He wants to sail solo around the world—after his millionaire boat-maker boss, who was meant to make the sail, disappears. Enter society, in the form of a cynical documentary filmmaker, Strickland, who will make a movie of this voyage. It is to be partly a movie that Owen himself will shoot at sea, and that Strickland will augment with interviews with Owen’s desperate and alcoholic wife, Anne, as well as with various corporate players that sponsor the project. Owen takes to the sea, determined to cover his weak sailing skills with faith in his own toughness. The journey is different than expected. In Stone’s world, they all are.
As Stone told The Paris Review in 2008: “I seem to have imprinted the ocean in a very strong way because I end up with all these marine images that just seem so readily at hand for me.”
While Outerbridge Reach has been his most critically acclaimed novel, and most locally relevant, Damascus Gate is his best. From a writer’s perspective, Stone’s character and plot structure is on display here. He spends the first third of the novel building a group of religious fanatics, some connected, all different levels of radical spirituality, faith at its fringes. It is set in the Old City of Jerusalem—Muslim, Christian, and Jewish extremism. The cast of characters then are set loose in the labyrinthine passageways snaking toward the Temple Mount, which different groups are plotting to destroy. Christopher Lucas, a journalist living in Jerusalem and the novel’s main character, is the child of a Christian mother and Jewish father. He is there to chronicle the Jerusalem complex of messianic and fatal faith. Lucas represents the intersection of intelligence and blind faith that drive this novel and Stone’s work.
One of the complex characters in Death of the Black-Haired Girl is Maud’s father, Eddie Stack. He’s a bitter New York cop whose lungs have been wasted responding to the 9/11 attack. That attack is perfect Stone territory: Faith meets violence. Stone is currently dealing with emphysema in his personal life, which may have made him more focused on his own legacy. As he writes about Stack toward the end of the book: “Freedom had always been an alien thing to him, as a concept or as an experienced condition. No one and nothing was free, everything rigorously bound and priced, locked down and chained, from your last drink to your last orgasm to what you thought were the highest flights of your soul. Stack was out of breath.”