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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 13th, 2003


 

Bay of Souls

by Robert Stone

A review by Thomas Mallon

Robert Stone's sly new novel is an exciting bad dream of a book in which the hero's midlife crisis accelerates into a Third World thrill ride. Michael Ahearn, a midwestern professor of literature, has always considered himself lucky, someone who has "done quite well by randomness" — a force he regards as being "no less cruel than some unlikely mysterious providence." But when his twelve-year-old son survives, unharmed, a coma brought on by hypothermia, Michael realizes that this stunning reprieve has "come of nothing, of absolutely nothing, out of a kaleidoscope, out of a Cracker Jack box." This sort of "random singularity" excites in him only "a proper revulsion for life's rank overabundance." The boy's continuing existence proves somehow more devastating than his death would have been, a sick psychological joke that Stone portrays with beautiful, concise credibility.

After this calamitous miracle Michael begins "trying to outrun the shadow inside him," to dodge "some kind of bill [that] had come up for payment." His heretofore routinely strained marriage begins to shred. Instead of an affair with his unprepossessing teaching assistant (which his wife has always suspected, and which in fact he hasn't had), he plunges into a romance with the most glamorous woman on campus. Lara Purcell is a political-science professor of exotic origins, the divorced wife of a leftist "agent of influence," and perhaps a onetime lover of Fidel Castro's. Now, having done an ideological about-face, she teaches in a provincial department known for its hospitality to burned-out right-wing spooks. There she inveighs against "gallant little social egalitarian feminist fairies," thrilling her PC-whipped colleagues.

Her liaison with Michael has an actual S&M side involving a collar and a gun. Their sessions make him wonder, "Was Krafft-Ebing one person or two? Lara would know." Either way, the "shame and self-despising rage" he starts to feel are just a warm-up for the soul-shaking dangers he begins to crave. A real chance at self-renewal comes when Lara proposes that he join her on a trip to "St. Trinity," the Caribbean island of her paradisal childhood. She needs to go home to sell the hotel her family has owned for ages, and to participate in memorial rites ("Masonic, sort of," with a bit of voodoo and the rosary thrown in) for her brother, John-Paul, recently dead of AIDS.

For Michael, going to St. Trinity amounts to winning the emotional lottery. Its "crazed, promiscuous forces" — the sort of cultural-political gumbo that has amused Stone from the New Orleans of A Hall of Mirrors (1967) to the Jerusalem of Damascus Gate (1998) — are just the tonic for the hero's wan climacteric. As soon as he arrives, Michael experiences feverish dreams and the "thrill of panic," all of it accompanied by drums calling him to a "whole world of otherness." The island's political turmoil matches his inner agitation: the United States is helping to defend the results of a recent election, but the Americans' new man, a Rolex-wearing, Fort Benning-trained veteran of Grenada named Eustace Junot, is not exactly a tribune of the people. "Besides that," explains John-Paul's partner, Roger, "it's total disorder. Looting and daylight robbery."

There are drugs, too. Roger and John-Paul had lately been working with some Colombians who are none too pleased that a plane bearing their emeralds and artworks has just gone down off the coast. "You have to dive a wreck," Lara tells Michael, who is more used to the waters of Lake Superior than to these environs. "You have to get three cases out of the aft compartment of a Cessna 185." Needless to say, she can count the peril-hungry Michael in.

This ought to be entirely ridiculous, Iron John meets Mistah Kurtz, but Stone, as skillful as ever, makes large chunks of it fresh and credible. The book does often seem synthetic, with Richard Russo-like glimpses of academe; a Dickeyesque hunting trip; knowing bits of Graham Greene and Joan Didion, as the island's governments rotate with the ceiling fans; and even the sort of thank-you-Jesus orgasms we haven't heard since Norman Mailer ("When he made her come he could hear the language of everything created beyond his understanding"). But none of this finally matters much; whatever its droops and derivations, the novel winds up being irreducibly Stone's, a quick, terrific read that transcends each type and template. The more his books edge toward apocalypse, the funnier and smarter their author tends to become. Instead of Greene's baleful infallibility, one gets hijinks and hysterics. A peculiar, realistic ballast is somehow supplied by the believably off-the-wall—for example, the backstory detail that "Roger's father had been a historical novelist, an African American from Boston whose books romanticized the antebellum South and were perennial bestsellers."

Only Lara ends up being a hard sell to the reader. The reactionary succubus of the campus goes all girly once she's back on native ground, trying not only to extricate herself from the intelligence rackets but also to reclaim her soul, which she has decided John-Paul gave away to an old spirit woman named La Marinette. It's difficult to believe that this tough cookie of fortune expects to get it back during John-Paul's retirer ceremony, or that her pistol-strapping, collar-wearing romance with Michael will turn New Age and dewy ("They would begin again. Because his situation was so like hers, the two of them together were no accident"). By the time the American consul pronounces Lara "the most fascinating person on the island," the once infatuated reader has already voted her off it.

Bay of Souls is minor Stone in scope and length, and after its time on St. Trinity the novel (like Michael) never quite regains its footing. But it is full of splendid writing, and the third-person narration is marked by frisky, subtle elisions. Michael's dive to the submerged plane, followed by a too-fast ascent, is a particular success.

The surface faintly lit with lovely moonlight was up there, a dream, a distant notion. But now he was in the real world, the water one, and he was drowning like all the others. One with the million million water bozos, blue bathing beauties, Phoenician sailors and narcotrafficing pilotos, all the other airless losers beneath the undulating sparkle of the briny deep.
Any novelist who has been workshopped into believing that showing always beats telling should take a look at sentences in which Stone's abstractions have twice the density and vividness of someone else's picture-painterly brushstrokes: "In the shower he was inflamed, frightened and guilty"; "The streets were poor, of a poverty underlaid with some destroyed elegance."

Early on Michael tells us how bored he is with the cheap "literary vitalism" he is supposed to celebrate in all the novels he teaches. He lives in a world where toasts to Dionysus are made by tenured professors sitting in the campus Starbucks, and he has had it with the easy existential heroes and "self-conscious libertines" of the printed page. As a novelist, Stone is of course even more securely trapped than Michael: he can protest literary vitalism only literarily, and his novel's biggest point — "Without physical courage ... there is no moral courage" — may seem derivative too, of Hemingway. But you've got to admire any novel — and this is one — that actually yearns to put its money where its mouth is.


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