DEATH OF THE BLACK-HAIRED GIRL is not easily classified, nor should it be. It puts one in mind of different works in different media, from the film Fatal Attraction to --- for a moment or two --- THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP by John Irving (the tragic parts, anyway) to something you think you might have read by John Barth or John Cheever. Yet it’s all Robert Stone, whose bibliography is short on quantity but long on quality who, like the black-haired girl of the title, has the capacity to leave you incensed at his expression while impressed with his abilities.
The plot is an old shoe, familiar but not quite comfortable, tight in spots and loose in others. Steve Brookman is a professor at a respected liberal arts college in an east coast city that has gone through a period of gradual decay. It is not stated that the university by default has become the city’s major employer, though one can certainly infer that; Brookman is one of its princes. He is married to Ellie, a popular faculty member, a fact that does not prevent him from carrying on the occasional dalliance with a member of the university family. When Ellie announces that she is pregnant, Brookman decides to end his current affair with a young woman named Maud Stack. If he thinks that Stack is going to go away gently, he is sadly mistaken.
"This is a dark work set in a familiar place, peopled with individuals all of us know to one degree or another, and is best read in the light of day."
Stack is quite the firebrand. Her abrupt dumping by Brookman coincides with the publication of an article she authored in the student newspaper that is more shrill shilling than journalism, so ill-advised that even those unfortunately inclined to agree with her are aghast. Given that Brookman is her faculty advisor as well as her lover, his failure to squelch her story before publication results in multiple repercussions. When Stack drunkenly confronts Brookman at his home, the convergence of multiple factors occur that illuminate Brookman’s acts of errors and omissions in stark relief against the backdrop of Stack’s tragic death, as foretold by the title.
And it is here where DEATH OF A BLACK-HAIRED GIRL truly begins. Unforgettable characters enter and exit the narrative, each and all contributing something to the story of the aftermath of the tragedy that one can see coming from the first page. Shell Magoffin, Stack’s college roommate and somewhat unlikely best friend, is an almost famous actress who is being stalked by her ex-husband, a somewhat deranged mouth-breather whom she married at age 16. Jo Carr, a former nun who works in the campus counselling office, knew Stack as well, and is one of the few well-intentioned characters in the book, as quietly damaged as she might otherwise be.
However, Stone waits until the book is almost finished before introducing its arguably most significant character, a woman named Mary Pick, who performs an extremely simple but gracious act of kindness that resonates forward and backward throughout the story. Each of these characters, as well as others, quietly surprise as they appear and disappear while the story moves toward its stark and abrupt ending.
The ending? It’s a surprise, but only in the context of the literary work that DEATH OF A BLACK-HAIRED GIRL ultimately is. The conclusion to this tale is as real as it gets; think about the tragedies that have entered your life. Good is so rarely rewarded and evil so rarely truly punished that when such does occur, it is given its own special term: irony. There is no real irony here, merely an ending, a footnote to the proposition that actions have consequences, even if they are not the consequences that we are conditioned to expect. This is a dark work set in a familiar place, peopled with individuals all of us know to one degree or another, and is best read in the light of day.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 13, 2013