‘Can I have brought down all this death in life on us, Brookman wondered, through my fondness for a pretty girl?’ – Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone
It had been some time since I’d read anything by Robert Stone, but I’ve never forgotten the deep impression that author’s Damascus Gate made on me when I read it in 1998, the year of its publication. Reviews were leading me to believe I should read Stone’s latest, Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I have now done so, and am glad that I did
Let’s stipulate from the outset: Maud Stack, the eponymous black-haired girl, is no angel. In fact, she is not even especially likeable. An undergraduate at an elite small college in New England, young Maud believes that she already knows the answers to life’s great questions. (The fact is, she is not alone in this conviction: “Sometimes the college could be an incredibly mean place; when the kids reflected it they had the sharp language and the intelligence but no sense and no mercy.”)
Maud also believes that she can engage in an adulterous relationship with one of her professors without endangering her claim to be living an upright life.
Steven Brookman, the professor in the case, is married and the father of a daughter, Sophia. His family life is precious to him – so precious that he decides he must end the affair with Maud. The risk of exposure is simply too great. This is especially true where Sophia is concerned: “Their bantering, fond relationship was a treasure of his life and he dreaded the loss of it.”
(As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of Breaking Bad, specifically of Walter White and his son, Walt Junior. Junior is a good-hearted child who would make any parent proud. Walt is fiercely committed to keeping his depraved criminal activities a secret from this son whom he adores, and who in turn idolizes him. It is a beautiful and inevitably doomed relationship. I’m also thinking of Blaise Gavender and his son David in Iris Murdoch’s riveting novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Heaven save us from these people who assume that life’s blessings are theirs by right, even – especially? – when they transgress against those blessings in the most blatant and unforgivable way.)
The wise guys always pointed out how you had to have at least two people to have a murder. A famous person had said, “Character is fate.” This was the wise-guy version: A person had made a mistake, they liked to say, and somebody had to pay. They didn’t give a damn about justice, only about restoring their version of the natural order. The victim was always at a disadvantage, being dead and so often unsightly.
At times, God comes into the picture, though He is not always welcome. In her review of this novel in The New York Times, Claire Messud says of Robert Stone that “Graham Greene is in some ways his natural antecedent,” and I think I know what she means.
As for Steven Brookman’s idle query, quoted in the title of this post, one must of course respond in the affirmative, although he is perhaps giving himself too much credit as a master manipulator of fate – his own, and that of the people around him. Yet another form of professorial arrogance, one is tempted to opine.