'Death of the Black-Haired Girl' Will Get Under Your Skin

Robert Stone has set his terrific new novel at a fictional school called "Amesbury". But don't be fooled. The institution he indicts is Yale University.

Death of the Black-Haired Girl

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Length: 288 pages
Author: Robert Stone
Price: $25
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-11

It's the recent past, and we're at an elite American college called Amesbury, somewhere near Connecticut.

9/11 is on everyone's mind.

Protestors surround the local hospital, because some of its doctors are willing to perform abortions.

Homeless people, along with emotionally and mentally unstable people, surround the campus. The residents of a halfway house spend a great deal of time at a trendy undergrad cafe.

One undergrad, Maud Stack, wants desperately to be loved. She manifests this want in dangerous ways. A charismatic, older, married professor becomes one of her obsessions; she visits his office and administers blow jobs... she buys him a card and quotes archaic poetry on the inside flap...

Maud doesn't always think carefully. Perhaps she is angry that her mother is dead. Perhaps she has a borderline personality disorder. Once, at the Met, she felt drawn to an expensive coffee-table book, so she tried to slip it into her purse. And she can't abide the pro-lifers at the nearby hospital, so she chooses to publish photos of disfigured babies in a college periodical. Her argument is that God regularly kills and/or mutilates babies; God probably doesn't care if people occasionally choose to terminate a pregnancy.

Of course, the world doesn't respond very kindly to Maud. (She reminds me a bit of the Jemima Kirke character on Girls, who thinks it's wise to insult everyone around her in group therapy.) ...People loudly criticize Maud's pro-choice op ed. The phone starts ringing off the hook. Threats are delivered.

When Maud is mowed over by a hit-and-run driver, no one is entirely sure what has happened. Was this simply an accident? Did an angry right-wing Christian deliberately murder Maud? Was the lascivious professor somehow involved? ...It emerges that Maud has been financially supported by a loathsome criminal relative, a man who robbed corpses amidst the rubble at Ground Zero. Has someone found out about this unfortunate connection? Is a grieving survivor seeking vengeance against Maud's family?

Power, economic and institutional injustice, problems without solutions -- this plot is admirably complicated. The writing is so smooth and so confident, you might overlook the immensity of Stone's achievement.

What's especially impressive is the way the novel inhabits many, many different voices -- an entitled undergrad, a mourning Queens cop, a careless adventurer, a polished Irish widow with a tragic past.

And you have to admire Stone for uncovering and articulating so many questions that do not have answers. What is the proper response to grave robbery? (And had you known it still occurs in America, in this millennium?) What is a school's responsibility to its students? What is the difference between life and gestation. And if we are to believe in a God, then how do we explain the universal mess we're in?

Stone's work is quite clearly based on the notorious murder of Suzanne Jovin, at Yale, in 1998. (Stone has taught at Yale for quite a while). Jovin was a student who made an appointment to drop off some test prep books with an unidentified second party. She met the person at Yale's Phelps Gate, a lovely, slightly deteriorating structure that houses the college's semi-ailing classics department. The books were, presumably, handed over. Within an hour, Jovin was repeatedly stabbed far, far from Phelps Gate -- and left to die. And, indeed, she died shortly thereafter.

Her thesis advisor was held in suspicion. The suspicion ruined his career. Only in the past several months has he rebuilt a life--and it's quite different from the life of a Yale scholar. No one was ever able to prove that this advisor had anything to do with the murder.

Stone changes details, clearly. For example, no one could doubt that Jovin was deliberately murdered; you don't "accidentally" stab a person several times. Stone chose to make the death in his book somewhat ambiguous. I think he is indirectly raising the question: To what extent is anyone ever blameless? An institution that permits sexual liaisons between professors and undergraduates... well, such an institution cannot claim to be completely shocked when one such undergrad, distraught and abused, throws herself into a crowded street on a snowy night.

I should note that I am more than a little invested in stories that concern Yale. I graduated from the college in 2004, and attended one of Stone's classes. (Though Stone is a towering literary figure, whose story, "Helping", is an exceptional piece of prose, Stone-the-teacher seemed somewhat disengaged.)

In any case, I recognize Yale in the rather devastating portrait that Stone paints. The college is sort of a disaster, encouraging wealthy children to sharpen their managerial skills without an adequate emphasis on values and social responsibility.

Yale is, of course, a big place, and many people there are well-intentioned. It does good things for the world, everyday. Still, in many ways, it's a cold and troubling micro-world, and Stone is brave to depict it as brutally and honestly as he does in his new novel.

You will be haunted by Stone's many images drawn of pampered fourth-generation "Amesbury" students who turn their faces away from the homeless of their city. Regardless of your feelings about our country, our cherished national myths, our socioeconomic structures, this novel will get under your skin.

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