Bay of Souls
Robert Stone
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Bay of Souls
Robert Stone
Mariner Books
256 pages
June 2004
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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A loyal fan of accomplished author Robert Stone, I began Bay of Souls with an open mind, expecting the quality of Damascus Gate or A Flag for Sunrise. Bay of Souls shares some familiar themes of Stone's prior work: Third World intrigue, moral and ethical dilemmas, bizarre characters in a distant island culture. But the characters fail to develop beyond the stereotypes of middle age, an exotic younger woman and a jaded marriage ripe for betrayal.

Michael Ahearn, a professor of literature at a small Minnesota college, goes on a hunting trip. While on the hunt, Michael perceives a stranger carrying the bloody carcass of his kill in a wheelbarrow and is stunned by the evil physiognomy of this man. Real or illusion, it's difficult to tell, since excessive drinking is a constant in Ahearn's life. Indeed, he imbibes whiskey throughout the book, altering his senses in every circumstance.

When Ahearn meets a new professor on the teaching staff, the exquisitely taunting Lara Purcell, he falls into a sudden, passionate affair - including the best sex Michael has experienced: "He had come to love the fantasies she played outů but they were rooted in the darkest, most secret and ashamed quarters of his nature." Lara cajoles Michael into visiting her native Caribbean island, St. Trinity, ostensibly for diving, but really for the voudon ritual funeral of her dead brother's soul. When Lara intimates that her own soul has long ago been taken and is waiting on the island for reclamation, Michael is apparently too besotted to question her reality.

In much-altered states, Ahearn's adventures on Lara's island include visions, although whether they are real or imagined is never clear. Caught in spiritual crisis as a lapsed Catholic, Ahearn appears to deserve his tortured thoughts and his despair; no moral compass guides him. An aficionado of American literary vitalism, the professor is irrevocably drawn to the dramatic struggle for redemption through battle, where life is intensified by risk, pushed to the edge of death. He experiences this pseudo-reality while on the island.

Michael is forcibly removed from the island, escorted by Green Berets to a waiting plane. Hence, there is no conclusion to the affair. Once home, he leaves the house when his wife learns of the betrayal. Left with nothing but expensive whiskey and muddled dreams, Michael is barren of feelings or future, his exotic lover only a memory. He is engaged in a process of self-destruction, one long in the making; the affair merely hastens his fall.

Michael is a man stripped of desire in his every day life, drawn into the sexual web and erotic intrigue of an affair. He follows his lover to paradise, but finds himself in hell. Plucked to safety by American soldiers, Ahearn returns to a home that is his no longer, with only his own distorted imagination for entertainment in a reality turned sour.

© 2003 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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