Robert Stone's 'Death of the Black-Haired Girl' plumbs ultimate mysteries

The accomplished literary writer hopes readers' huge appetite for crime fiction will lead them to sink their teeth into his tale

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Robert Stone's latest novel promises readers a campus murder mystery, but that's a misdirection cued almost immediately by the surname of the heroine's roommate (Magoffin, a Stone's throw from MacGuffin). Probably Mr. Stone hopes contemporary readers' huge appetite for crime fiction will lead them to sink their teeth into his tale. If he's lucky, they'll be hooked by the time they realize his novel isn't a mystery, it's The Mystery.

By Robert Stone.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($25).

Mr. Stone sacrifices Maud, the beautiful black-haired girl of the title, to his real agenda: a morality play about the forces of good and evil as they clash on a cloistered college campus and in the rough-edged New England town surrounding it. Imagine a pastiche of Wesleyan, Yale, and Brown whose motto is "lux in umbras procedet" ("a light advancing into darkness").

The motto dates back to the academy's Puritan origins when the benighted souls belonged to local Indians torn between converting to Christianity or slaughtering the proselytizers. "In its own heart [the college] never knew, and never learned, light or darkness -- about either, or how to distinguish one from another ... until they threw away the keys, and the shadows the place had pondered and reported and tried to witch away turned up at its doors."

Steve Brookman, a married English professor, has allowed himself to fall in love with passionate Maud. She's urging him to leave his family for her, but he's just learned his wife is pregnant with their second child and he plans, instead, to break off the affair. We first see him in his office, planning his farewell speech while avoiding grading papers on Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus."

Of course his eye falls upon the place where the devil in that book tells his own baited doctor that hell isn't somewhere else, but here, and we are in it. On and off the campus, madness abounds. "Smart kids were wonderful if they could keep it all together ... if nothing bad happened, though every year, somewhere in the college, something did."

This year Brookman's colleague Margaret Kemp derailed during a comp lit class. Most of her students fled, but a few found her 72-hour explanation of the systems underpinning the universe revelatory. Like many of the characters in this novel, her name is symbolic.

Margery Kempe was the medieval mystic whose famous book describes her struggles with demons and her conversations with Jesus. The college's Kemp has a weaker light, which can proceed only so far in darkness, and Brookman ignores his chance to save her. The novel bristles with sins of omission as well as commission.

Maud's been doomed since we read the title of the novel, but she has to strut her stuff for a brief while on the page. She's a wandering soul, an only child whose mother has died and whose father, a retired cop dying of alcoholism and emphysema, tries and fails to comfort her.

Catholic to the bone, even in apostasy, she writes a fanatical screed for the college paper deploring the local hospital's right-to-life demonstrators with their pictures of aborted fetuses. Her piece includes photos of deformed babies -- live births -- and describes Jesus as "the only Son of his divine dad, God Abortionist." For those who live, she writes, "Christ Torturer ... is watching your every move for an excuse to fry [you], not just for an hour, not just for a year, but always. Always."

Death threats begin as soon as Maud's piece appears. Jo Carr, an ex-nun at the student counseling center, tries to help her, but Jo has her own demonic memories of massacres in the Andes, and a cruel priest called "The Mourner" who helped orchestrate them. He appears on campus seeking Maud, just as the girl flees to her father's apartment in Queens.

Eddie loves his daughter, knows she's been seduced by her professor, and has published something that can only bring her trouble. His advice comes too late: "People's religion -- it's not like opium. It don't work that way. It's their mother, you understand. They may not understand their mother at all. They may hate their mother. ... When I started swinging a stick they told me: Put 'em in their place ... but for God's sake don't mention their mother."

Morality plays go one way or the other -- the Everyman character is either won over by the virtues or tempted to damnation by the vices. The devil is in the details, and Mr. Stone quarries these carefully. If this is hell, nor are we out of it, how can we live? That's the question Mr. Stone would like to answer.

Susan Balee is a writer living in the East End. Her omnibus review of the best recent fiction will appear in the spring issue of The Hudson Review.

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