The “girl” in the title of Robert Stone’s first novel in 10 years is not a girl, but a young woman named Maud Stack, a beautiful and brilliant college student whose affair with her professor leads accidentally to her death.
The professor is an amalgam of other Stone middle-aged males — a man with a messy past now shuddering with the fallout from his moral failings. This is Stephen Brookman, a literature teacher of some sort, ex-Marine and crew member on a fishing boat turned complacent academic living with his professor wife and young daughter at a mythical New England liberal arts college.
And, like other Stone novels, “Death of the Black-Haired Girl” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages, $25), centers around the male protagonist, not Maud, whose character is one-dimensional, a catalyst, really, for the events that force Brookman to confront his flawed existence.
There’s another man at the center of the book, Eddie Stack, Maud’s father, a retired New York City cop stumbling toward death with emphysema, alcoholism and widower’s grief. Maud is all he has, and when he loses her, he seeks revenge against Brookman.
Stack has the makings of an intriguing guy — a decent officer gone to seed whose brush with Sept. 11 links him to an unsavory in-law who helps pay Maud’s college bills. There’s a complex story there, but Stone doesn’t follow up. He also manages a clumsy coincidence: Stack’s former NYPD partner is now a detective for the college town’s police force, a fact crucial to the book’s outcome.
Stone’s targets are the dubious foundations of faith explored in the character of college counselor Jo Carr, former Roman Catholic nun, a victim of the aftermath of “liberation theology” in South America.
Leftist insurgencies in Andean countries left death and despair among Carr’s flock, sabotaged her belief and drove her from the church. This scenario is vintage Stone, as well, harking to the harrowing “A Flag for Sunrise” of 1981 and reaching its peak in 1998’s “Damascus Gate.”
But, at 75, Stone’s fervor against hypocrisy and dogmas has cooled. His criticism of organized religion, in this case, the Catholic Church, and to a lesser degree, the Mennonites, is predictable and heavy-handed. Maud’s controversial student newspaper column attacking foes of abortion rights is unremarkable, simply an outlet for Stone to debate the issue.
There are other rich possibilities for a well-rounded novel here, as well, including the background of Ellie, Brookman’s wife, who holds to much in her Mennonite past, and the intriguing Shelby Magoffin, Maud’s roommate — and popular film actress — who tries to look out for her. Yet, Stone again seems content to give his readers the barest bones of his intriguing characters.
Stone also alludes to the presence of the poor and mentally ill people around the campus, draws stereotypes of students and tosses in the psychological damage done to veterans of the Iraqi invasion.
There’s much here to tease readers to expect a bigger payoff that never materializes. For those who recall the powerful moments from Stone’s magisterial early novels, “Death of the Black-Haired Girl” is a shadow of those thrilling books.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.