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FICTION

Death of the Black-Haired Girl

By Robert Stone

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

281 pages, $25.00

By William L. Morris

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Robert Stone knows a good story when he hears it. This one happened while he was teaching Creative Writing at Yale.

In 1998, a senior was stabbed to death on one of the better streets of New Haven. It happened only hours after she’d left the final draft of her thesis for her adviser. The topic was Osama bin Laden, three years before 9/11.

Her adviser was an authority on all kinds of secret government operations and had a security clearance five levels above top secret. Many thought he worked for the CIA. He’d had a great relationship with his advisee until recently, when he’d stopped helping her with her thesis. That afternoon he read the draft that he’d avoided reading for some reason. All that was missing was her conclusion.

The police leaked to the press that the adviser was a suspect, perhaps hoping he’d crack under pressure. Yale fired the adviser, who went back into government work. The killer has never been found. The police, who have a copy of her paper, have never released it to the public. The handling of the matter by the university and the police enraged the dead woman’s parents.

In the novel “Death of the Black-Haired Girl,” Stone makes changes for dramatic effect. He makes the adviser and advisee lovers, which they probably weren’t. The girl’s only surviving parent is a burnt-out policeman, which helps Stone get into the heads of the police working the case. He makes the stabbing into a hit-and-run after a hockey game, with many witnesses but no leads.

Then everything slows down, and the story spreads out. He gives equal time to all involved: the girl’s father, the policeman in charge of the case, the adviser’s wife, the college counselor who tried to help the girl, et al.

Why?

Because this is not a murder mystery. Stone has tricked us into thinking it is by having everyone in the novel have his or her own favorite paranoid explanation for what happened.

Robert Stone is up to his old tricks with a new twist. Once again he’s writing a novel filled with conspiracy theories, but this time they aren’t his.

Beginning with his first novel – “A Hall of Mirrors” – paranoia and madness have been central features of his writing. The addition of drugs and alcohol make his main, semi-autobiographical characters even more paranoid than the other Stone who deals in conspiracy theories – Oliver.

Conspiracy theories are a hard sell, as both Stones have discovered. It’s difficult to come up with a credible ending when it could be just one more layer of delusion. This fact may account for the general feeling that Robert Stone is just too over the top to be our Hemingway or Fitzgerald, though I would argue that he is.

His novels have always taken place in the Third World up till now. (Yes, the French Quarter in New Orleans – the setting for his first novel – was Third World when he was there in the early ’60s. Some say it still is.) Now he’s returned to America, and not some backwater, but to the jewel in its crown, the best of its universities, where he finds all the elements he needs for his next paranoid fantasy: the death of an innocent, a fallen nun who hasn’t given up her idealist fight, dirty police, an intellectual who has lost his way and who licks his wounds with alcohol and the attentions of young women, homeless grads wandering the campus off their medication, campus gates locked and chained like Xanadu in “Citizen Kane,” bureaucrats who have sold their souls to the devil, and the devil himself hatching sinister CIA-like plots. All this has come to America now because “Mickey Mouse will see you dead.”

That last statement needs a little explanation.

In one of his best novels, “A Flag for Sunrise,” an academic travels to a mythical Central American country to deliver a lecture. He gets drunk, and instead of reading, he delivers a rant in which he explains Mickey’s intentions. According to him, dark, unknown forces in the United States have played a trick on its own citizens. They educated the immigrant class just enough to have taste but not enough to develop an inner life. This way, they would want things they’d never had before. Then they gave them the kind of leisure formerly reserved for royalty. Then they mass-produced objects and activities to keep these masses sated. But when this mass production ran out of markets in the U.S., they began to export. Hence Mickey’s desire to see everyone else’s way of life dead.

That was 1981. Now this process has come home to roost. The same sinister forces – the Koch Brothers are only the tip of the iceberg – have decided the goose that laid the golden egg must be offed. Its entitlements are cutting into obscene profits. So they are slowly strangling the new middle class by destroying their education system, their social safety net and their wealth with low interest rates, high gas prices and student loans. Soon there will be nothing left but the rich and the poor and the goons and drones to keep the latter down. The United States, in this view, is now the Third World.

This is where Robert Stone gets very clever, proving he’s not just a one-trick pony.

After convincing the reader that something far worse than any of the characters have imagined is going on and knowing that his reader has almost certainly used Google to read about the case – how all kinds of sinister possibilities about what happened are still being discussed – Stone pulls aside the curtain and reveals to us everyday America. It’s far more terrifying than the most wicked scheme a CIA operative could ever dream up. It’s “Blue Velvet” in reverse.

Or think of it as Robert Stone’s “The Tempest,” though I hope it’s not his last major work. His Prospero has tired of creating his characters, his monsters. He releases them and then stands aside. “I’ll break my staff. … I’ll drown my book.” The only fantasy left is not paranoid. It’s an escape into nature writing. And the only reality is that the poor girl died.

We thought Stone’s writing desk was still littered with voodoo dolls with pins stuck in them, but in the end, it was just Jim Henson’s Muppets, and the joke’s on us.

William L. Morris is the co-inventor of the News poetry page. He now lives and writes in Florida.