Click here to read reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott's take on Death of the Black-Haired Girl.
Though Maud Stark, a brilliant and beautiful student at a New England college, is the fulcrum of his novel, Stone salts the drama with contemporary themes from chronic homelessness to the raging abortion debate, campus policies and personal moral dilemmas, a country bifurcated by reason versus religion as the culture wars rage on. The gap between youth and maturity couldn’t be more critical as Maud Stark addresses an impassioned diatribe in the college newspaper to the ranting anti-abortion picketers waving placards with pictures of dead babies. When Maud’s rebuttal of their presumption appears, there is an immediate public outcry, the weight of argument lost in the furor over her attack on religious beliefs.
Long-benefitting from her beauty and intelligence, Maud has no desire to temper her opinions or actions, oblivious to the chaos her article might unleash. Though aware of his marital status, Maud has thrown herself into an affair with her mentor, Professor Steven Brookman, one he has foolishly—and predictably—reciprocated, only to rebuff Maud’s advances when his wife, a Mennonite, returns home after a visit to her family with their young daughter. Maud reacts as expected, flailing against convention, wallowing in drunkenness that only exacerbates her pain, returning to New York at the winter break for a brief visit with her widower father, Eddie, a retired cop battling the ravages of emphysema. At a loss to help his precious, headstrong daughter, Eddie regrets his impotence and wasted years. Maud returns to a campus inflamed by her words and a lover who will not answer her calls.
Though the drama revolves around Maud’s story and her relationship with Brookman, other characters are critical to the narrative, from Maud’s roommate to campus counselor Jo Carr, whose experiences years before in South America color the unfolding events on campus, adding perspective and depth to the tragedy that befalls the student. Salmone, a local police detective and former partner of Eddie Stack, is faced with making sense out of a senseless tragedy, sorting truth from fiction and restoring order to chaos. Maud’s death, after all, is superfluous, save to her father and the few who care for her, the world restored to a semblance of order.
Stone’s perspective pushes beyond the conventional, a sophisticated look at a society bound in unsettled coexistence, the contrast of elite and hopeless, religion and reason, the power of superstition to move humanity to unspeakable acts in the midst of a rational society. Religion is an unnamed character, an internal mythology that gives birth to moral constructs and implies consequences beyond death, haunting those who stray from its ideology: “A being sacred in a way that is not to be destroyed at will.” Maud will have none of it and will flaunt her hubris, blazing until she is extinguished, whether by accident or intent.
Persuasive and provocative, Stone never asks us to like his characters, none of whom are particularly likable. The issues are larger than the petty problems of a bright student and a self-indulgent professor, bit players on the stage of life. Death of the Black-Haired Girl is our world in microcosm, a disturbing reminder of the passions that simmer beneath the complacent surface of society ever on the verge of change: “History is poisoned by claims of underlying truth.”