Is There Life After the ’60s?
Robert Stone’s second novel—Dog Soldiers, about an American journalist in Vietnam who orchestrates a heroin deal that goes wrong—depicts the 1960s counterculture souring into druggy violence. Unlike others of his generation who treated the subject, Stone had some claim to being a member of that counterculture. Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe—one a skeptical neurasthenic, the other a Southern dandy—wrote as outsiders about the Haight-Ashbury scene. Stone was an early partaker of Ken Kesey’s acid tests. When the Merry Pranksters completed the cross-country bus trip described by Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, they pulled up at Stone’s apartment in Manhattan.
Didion and Wolfe are conservatives by disposition, and they treated the moment’s excesses as a natural consequence, not a corruption, of its first principles. In his memoir Prime Green, Stone comes to a different conclusion: “Measuring ourselves against the masters of the present, we regret nothing except our failure to prevail.”
Despite occasional gestures toward pseudo-Catholic mysticism, Stone is essentially a political novelist, and his primary theme is the damage America’s peculiar, self-serving naiveté has done around the world. A novelist with such a concern won’t ever lack for fresh subject matter, and there is an admirable diversity of setting and story in Stone’s work. Yet he clearly sees each new variation of his theme as tragically rooted in the upheavals of his own youth, with the loss of America’s innocence in Vietnam.
Death of the Black Haired Girl is Stone’s first novel set after 9/11 and its wars, in a midsize New England city that’s home to a prestigious university. (Mention of a mayor imprisoned on corruption charges suggests Providence and Brown.) The girl of the title is an undergraduate named Maud Stack, and about her hair Stone writes, “Sometimes she used an iron on it, the way girls in the sixties had.” A few pages on, her roommate quotes Judy Collins in passing. A professor of Maud’s named Steven Brookman describes his former colleagues at another university as “a bunch of merry pranksters”—a jarring line since Stone has said many times that Kesey’s coterie never used the name themselves.
Beyond such tics, the novel connects the campus to the 1960s in less superficial ways:
For years the place rested behind no more bolts than the resort of young gentry required in any rough-handed New England mill town. Then the sixties struck, with coeducation and power to the people—all sorts of people—and there had even been a solitary unisex bathroom, which languished amid the embarrassment hardly a year after its building, and there was the Throwing Open of Gates, the Unbolting of the Great Doors, the Opening to the Community. What ensued, drug-wise, crime-wise and in terms of bitterness between the college and the town, was brief but ugly. The opening forth was followed by a locking up, down and sideways that had locksmiths laboring day and night, and now there were three or four doors for everything—even clerks’ offices were secured, and elderly dons retired because they spent half their working days trying to distinguish in the dour economy of light which of the cards or keys on their chains opened their outermost office door, which the second, which the third, and so on. The coffee Maud had brought cooled on the cold stone while she knelt fiddling and jingling at Professor Brookman’s door.
As one might have guessed, Maud’s possession of the cards and keys to Brookman’s office means professor is sleeping with student. The death promised by Stone’s title occurs about halfway through: Maud is struck by a car outside Brookman’s house, where she has come to confront him drunkenly about his decision to end the affair.
Previous Stone novels have taken the form of thrillers. This one becomes something of a police procedural, as the rest of the book is given over to discovering who’s responsible for Maud’s death. The possibility that Brookman pushed Maud in front of the car is considered but quickly discarded, after which attention shifts to the identity of the driver, who has fled the scene. The death seems random, except the timing is odd—Maud dies shortly after writing an inflammatory column for the school paper in which she mocks the Catholic pro-lifers picketing the local hospital:
They say the Assembly of God treats us to the spectacle of eternal punishment in a kind of haunted house acted out by whooped-up teenagers called Hell House. This is a sort of fun-terrifying spectacle, like a life-sized diorama out of Dante or Hieronymous Bosch, but much dumber, where you follow the host through a squeaky door into scenes of unending torment presented to you by Christ Torturer the Lord of Unending Piss-off. This person is watching your every move for an excuse to fry your ass, not just for an hour, not just for a year, but always. Always.
He’s the only Son of his divine dad, God Abortionist. Who’s your Daddy?! Yes, friends, twenty per cent of pregnancies spontaneously abort. And lots of those that don’t aren’t nearly as lovable as the ones in the signs right-to-lifers carry.
As a rendering of liberal undergraduate contempt for religion, this isn’t bad. If you went to school in the Northeast around the time the novel is set, as I did, you read a column like this one in the independent weekly three or four times a semester, and each times its author was as certain as Maud is that she was making a revolutionary point.
But that’s just the problem: in Stone’s book Maud’s column is a rare provocation that sets campus and surrounding city abuzz, draws protesters from around the country, and naturally casts suspicion on the circumstances of her subsequent death. Maud has had the audacity to go “head to head with religion.” Professor Brookman, who was Maud’s academic adviser as well as her lover, is culpable for not having stopped her from publishing such explosive material.
This premise is so deeply out of proportion that it undermines almost everything about the novel. Stone seems not to realize how much vitriol religious believers are subject to these days. The world of this book is a world in which Christopher Hitchens would have been gunned down in the street before he lived long enough to get cancer. Stone imagines a university campus still inflamed by the culture wars, where the most salient historical fact is still “then the sixties happened.” But such campuses don’t exist anymore, at least not in New England.
On some level Stone seems to recognize as much, and he fills this relatively short book with a Byzantine collection of subplots, as if to distract from the fault at its center. Maud’s father, a retired New York cop, has played a passive role in an odd scheme by 9/11 first responders to fence possessions scavenged from Ground Zero, and he worries Maud’s death may be connected to it. A counselor at the university is a former nun with a history of radicalism in Latin America, and she suspects that a murderous priest from her past has come for Maud. The roommate has a mentally ill ex-husband down South, and he has delusions that he has killed Maud himself.
All of the characters want to connect Maud’s death to their own personal histories—as, it seems, does Stone. Late in the book, a minor character who has appeared only in passing is given an elaborate backstory involving a husband killed by an IRA bomb. There’s something desperate about the gesture, as if more historical violence could lend the novel the significance Stone wants for it.
Finally, Stone seems to throw up his hands, and Maud’s death is shown to be the random tragedy we’d suspected it of being all along. It’s a dissatisfying result for everyone involved. Some novelists can wrestle existential significance from the world’s refusal to mean anything. But Stone is not that sort of writer. “Any fictional work of serious intent argues for the significance of its story,” he has written elsewhere. “How then can fiction ever be independent of morality?”
So it seems improbable that Stone wants Maud’s fate to illustrate the absurd disorder of life. He wants to connect her death to something, but the sort of things with which he’s used to drawing connections no longer apply.
The irony is that we’re living in a moment that is, if anything, overstuffed with Stoneian potential. Unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the economic crisis set off a radical youth protest movement. The Arab Spring has started a familiar cycle of hopefulness and disappointment. Details continue to emerge of a U.S. surveillance state elaborate enough to put any hippie’s stoned ravings to shame. What’s needed is a writer of Stone’s temperament who can see the time for itself, not as the latest consequence of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Several younger novelists of great talent have clearly been influenced by Stone, but they seem to have absorbed his idea that the real action happened a few decades back. So they have given us very good novels about the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Red Brigades in 1970s Italy, fugitive members of the Weather Underground, and San Francisco hippies who fall in with the Baader-Meinhof group. But they seem even less willing than Stone does to bring their sensibilities to bear on our own historical moment.
All of these books place the loss of American innocence in the past, but America is constantly losing its innocence over again. A campaign book published last year revealed that our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president—who might be called the first post-Vietnam president, born too late to be draft eligible—remarked to aides about his drone program, “It turns out I’m really good at killing people.” This is the sort of thing that ought to set off novelists in Stone’s line to work, but Stone himself seems too far removed from the pulse of the time to do the job.
At the end of this book, he almost admits as much. Months after Maud’s accident, Professor Brookman falls while out on a walk and badly hurts himself. “It had content, you know,” he tells his wife afterwards, with rather too much insistence. “That falling. It seemed to be about something. You know? Everything that happened at home.” Meanwhile Jo Carr, the former radical nun, finds herself in conversation with an old friend, a psychiatrist suggestively named Dr. Lerner, who was also involved with radicals in Latin America. About the death of the black-haired girl, Dr. Lerner is given the last word, with which the reader is inclined to agree: “People always want their suffering to mean something.”
Christopher Beha’s second novel, Arts & Entertainments, will be published in July.