I’ve had Robert Stone’s last novel in my stack of To Be Read books for months. Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I was saving it for a special occasion, that is, for a time when I had nothing distracting on my agenda and I could just give a day or two to reading it for the plain fun of reading a book by a favorite author. I’d say that author’s death counts as a special occasion.
Unless he had one in his drawer or on his computer, Death of the Black-Haired Girl is Stone’s last novel as in his final novel. He died yesterday.
When I went off to Iowa for grad school, I carried in my head four writers I was planning to model my own writing on. Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, and Robert Stone. This was naive and laughably self-unaware of me. All four were travelers and their fiction drew from their experiences traveling. I had not traveled. I was not likely to travel. Driving to Iowa was my greatest road adventure to date and it still is. I had some half-baked idea that I would travel. I thought I’d take my first advance from a publisher and hit the road or take to the sea. I’d spend some time in Paris or Bangkok or Key West. But I’m not a traveler. I’m an observer. You don’t need to roam far to find interesting things and people to observe. In fact, it’s better you don’t roam or don’t roam far. It’s best to observe a single place up close and again and again and really get to know it. In all the moving about and in the jumble of impressions that traveling entails, you’re bound to miss things. Conrad, for instance, missed women. Greene, generally, missed people’s ability to be happy with their lots and enjoy what they have. Theroux, as far as I’ve been able to catch him at it, misses nothing, which is why he’s still my favorite of the three who aren’t Conrad. Stone probably missed a few things but he didn’t write enough for me to be sure. In the books he did write and I’ve read, he seems to have taken at lot in. So far, thirty pages into Death of the Black-Haired Girl it feels as though he’s trying to pack in everything he didn’t get into his previous books. He’s an efficient packer. But like I was saying, I’m not a traveler, I’m an observer, a very keen-eyed observer, to be honest, which is why it makes sense that the observers Dickens and Chekhov quickly grew more important to me than those four travelers and why my failure to become a novelist is a loss to literature. I didn’t leave Iowa with a publisher’s advance, but I did leave with a grant, which I used to travel to Indiana not India. Never mind. I arrived in Iowa with the drafts of several stories that showed the influences of all four but mainly that, I would have claimed at that time, of Stone. One of the stories was about a beautiful young American living in Barcelona where she’s waiting for her lover, whom she met and fell in love with while teaching English in Poland, to be granted an exit visa. She’s working at an import-export business run by a couple of Polish émigrés who in some way I had yet to work out had attracted the hostile attention of Basque separatists. Basque separatists were blowing up things all over Spain at the time. The story ended unhappily, of course. I could have called it “The Death of the Chestnut-Haired Girl”. Except that my heroine didn’t die. She was presumed dead and in an act of author contrived irony lost her lover who went off to America without her where he got over his grief in a hurry and married a Polish girl his aunt and uncle introduced him to in Cleveland. The story was based on the experiences of a friend who had taught in Poland and had lived for a while in Spain while she waited for her fiancé to get permission to emigrate. There were no Basque separatists in her life and her story ended happily in that she and her fiancé reunited, got married, moved to the United States, and had my goddaughter who is now grown and married herself. I never turned the story in to be workshopped. I’m not sure why. There are many reasons I failed to become a novelist, one of which is my taking my grant money to Indiana, but I think a big reason is that I lost the manuscript of that story. Another is I never wrote another story like it.
Anyway, before I move on to Death of the Black-Haired Girl: one other thing Conrad, Greene, Theroux, and Stone have in common is they’re Catholics. So maybe I wasn’t completely foolish to think I had an affinity with them.
I took a break from writing this to read some more of Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I’m now sixty pages in. I was right. Stone is packing it all in. Practically every paragraph is a sketch or an anecdote that could stand on its own without needing a novel around it to make sense and have an effect. This makes for some start and stop reading. But I’m enjoying that. There’s a rhythm to it that feels like the purposeful paddling of a canoe. A push and a glide. A push and a glide. Each increment of motion a trip in itself but also giving a satisfying sense of adding up, of getting you somewhere.
The story’s set at a midsized, moderately prestigious private liberal arts college in a New England factory town undergoing a fitful recovery. The town’s in the middle of an unhappy transition from struggling-to-get-by blue collar to riding the wave of the information economy white collar. At the moment, though, both blue collar and white collar workers seem lost in the crowds of the dislocated and dispossessed. The college is an island of stability, culture, and relative prosperity. Which makes it a target for blue collar resentment, an attraction to white collar strivers, and a refuge for the dislocated and dispossessed.
Stone wasn’t an academic. He taught at various places but he was always there on a visit. He sees college life from the outside and one thing that’s clear from that viewpoint is that college campuses aren’t little mini-societies and subcultures unto themselves. They aren’t outposts of progress, they are ports. They are places where people from many different subcultures and mini-societies meet, collide, and conflict, while trying to recreate home or make new homes. Where immigrants outnumber natives. Where many residents think of themselves as just passing through even though they’ve lived there for many years and have built lives there. Two of the main characters introduced so far are passing through. They’re students who have left complicated and unhappy pasts behind but, because they are bright and talented and resourceful and lucky (in different ways), are already on the way into their own better futures somewhere else. The other two, an ex-nun turned CSW and a Robert Stone-like writer with a tenured position as a professor of literature are, in the case of the nun, reconciling herself to the fact she is probably there to stay and happy to do so or at least not that unhappy about the prospect, and, in the case of the writer-professor, avoiding thinking about it by doing his best to enjoy the perks and pleasures of his job, the latter of which includes at the moment an affair with one of the students, and letting the future take care of itself. And Stone sees the college as a place with a peculiar geography and its own weather patterns, natural and psychic, and not as simply the setting for intimate dramas.
My categories of writers as travelers and observers aren’t mutually exclusive. Good travelers are good observers. Observers routinely travel. (Dickens did. Chekhov not as much.) Stone was a good traveler which means he was a good observer. Death of the Black-Haired Girl is observational and the observations strike me as exact. For instance, this is the view from my office window and the weather outside it when I left it at the beginning of December:
Still at the window, Brookman watched the quad. The only color was of the autumn-yellowed grass on the lawns; the sky matched the sidewalks and the Norman tower of New Chapel. There was a faint snow, salting a drizzle. It was slightly cheering because the month had been gray and wet, more chill than truly cold.
And I know this guy, but despite my own keen powers of observation I hadn’t seen him as well or thought about him with as much real sympathy:
The man Brookman watched was in his forties and had been around the college for a very long time. He lived in the small downtown condo his parents had bought for him. No backpacks for him; along with the plastic bags from Price Chopper and Target and 7-Eleven he carried a worn briefcase with a college sticker he had pasted on it more than twenty years before as a student. Sometimes he walked silently, eyes fixed on the pavement. Other times he carried on a dialogue with the unseen, an exchange that sounded so nuanced and literate that new students and faculty thought he was addressing them or talking into a cell phone. Occasionally he grew angry and shouted a bit, but like many of the delusional, he had learned not to confront real people who---downtown---could prove all too substantial.
Brookman stayed at the window to watch him. It was possible to picture this man sitting all night in the room his family had bought for him, and Brookman wondered if he was alone or accompanied through the small hours by the voices he heard. Whether he turned on the light or sat in the dark with them, whether they were visible to him or simply voices. What their identities were, how they treated him. Did they make him angry? Certainly he heard no good news from them.
Sometimes the man wandered into the college buildings and rode the elevators. Security never stopped him; no one bothered him. If he was in an elevator when someone got on, he would get off, even if he had just got on. If he was trapped in the elevator by a crowd, he began to act desperately sane, polishing his glasses with his handkerchief, nodding pleasantly at no one in particular, ignoring his voices. When he reached a floor he would race out, plainly agitated. Madness was hardly unknown in the college. There were others like this man, forever groping through the maze of alma mater.
Brookman saw that the man with the bags had reversed direction. The man was now walking as fast as he could, fleeing a noisy group of students excited by the powdering of snow. He was dull-eyed, chin down, jaw clenched. He didn’t like the snow on his fair balding skull, didn’t like the happy youths. In a moment he would turn again and walk back to his own voices. It was so much work to be crazy, Brookman thought.
Stone’s mother was schizophrenic, by the way. All writers, whether travelers or observers, are autobiographers.
Almost every year a kid was referred to the counseling office in whom Jo could detect the first sings of adolescent-onset schizophrenia. She was not qualified to work with its victims---there was a clinical psychologist at the center---but she knew the signs well enough. The too-wide smile, undercut by fear and wonder in the eyes, the futile attempted escapes into non sequitur, all the small signs of demeanor that signaled the beginning of the adventure. The descent of the innocent into half light, half life.
Took another break. A hundred and eight pages in now. Lives are spiraling out of control. A scary visitor has arrived in town. Two more are probably on their way. Ominous things have been said. A happy ending seems unlikely. Back to reading. I’m going to try to finish the novel before the Packers and Cowboys finish their game. But I’ll be checking in as I go. I have at least two posts in mind and maybe one of them will turn into a formal review.