Reviewer: Steve Harris


A Review: Bay of Souls
by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin 2003)

In his eighth novel, novelist Robert Stone revisits familiar ground via similar characters, themes and settings. As with protagonists from earlier novels, Michael Ahearn, a teacher at a small Midwestern college, is a dissatisfied academic—a half-man, compartmentalized and walled off from hope, sliding into alcoholism and infidelity as he enters middle-age. To some extent he has had success in building a fragile, but comfortable world. Both he and his wife Kristin (a Chaucer expert) have their college jobs, a son, a house, and a dog.

Indeed, Ahearn has kept his life in a rough balance, though he does have an eye for the ladies and a taste for whiskey. However, as in all Stone novels, clouds are gathering on the horizon. In the novel's first pages, one senses a growing tension in the Ahearn household. The turn of the wheel begins when Michael and a couple of teacher buddies head out to go deer hunting. The hunting trip has its previously established ritual, with Michael insisting upon stopping at a hole-in-the-wall diner for a special unblended Irish whiskey. This little necessity illustrates clearly how Michael has spent his life encased in empty traditions and conducting tame suburban rituals.

At the diner, Michael safely slums a bit with the locals. Still, there is an edge, a blending of the real and surreal in this nowhere bar. Michael, while chatting up Megan, a young and hard barmaid, feels a faint brush of danger as he is mocked by others at the bar—though it is a brush he apparently enjoys. As Megan turns away to get his whiskey, he notices the forked tongue of a snake tattooed on the nape of her neck. It's a warning and signal of a darker world—its near boundaries. The coming danger is further reinforced by an incident in the woods. As Michael sits in his tree stand, he witnesses another hunter trying to move a deer's carcass through the underbrush with a wheel barrel. It's a grotesque scene, like something out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, which will later mutate into a more grotesque tableau before the novel's end. To some extent the entire hunting portion of the novel, with all its establishment of fateful symbols and patterns—right down to a dropped flashlight—contains some of the best writing in the book.

A phone call soon shatters the backwoods reverie of the teacher-hunters. Paul, Michael and Kristin's son, nearly dies in an accident. Though the boy lives, the cracks that were in Michael's world suddenly expand. Unlike Kristin, he has no faith to turn to. His has led an entirely superficial existence, right down to his church attendance, with its reliance on comforting and familiar traditions and rituals, but for him, without the spiritual underpinnings. It is a vague and unanchored need that dominates Michael's world. Additionally, an apparently indifferent God has nearly allowed his son to die. His drinking increases, and the friction with his wife begins to grow to an unbridgeable distance. Finally, enter Lara, a fellow teacher, who is a new and exotic addition to his life.

Lara is a complex figure. She's a femme fatale with killer looks and amoral sexual appetites, who is rumored to have slept with Castro and to have known Graham Greene. She's a shadowy figure with shadowy ties—through family and a previous marriage—to the intelligence community. Right-wing, left-wing, it's an ever-shifting cynical prism —the spy game's "Hall of Mirrors"—that the reader shouldn't even try to penetrate in hopes of understanding. However, Lara can also be fragile, even frantic. At times, this character's complexity breaks down into confusingly mixed signals. Which Lara is real? The fact that she reflects, just as disjointedly, the world and its intrigues perhaps provides an answer, though it leaves the reader with an ever-shifting symbol-of-the-moment more than a flesh and blood character.

Upon meeting Michael, there is a witty, allusive repartee between the two. Lara launches zingers about Michael's Norman Rockwell family, and Michael counters with his Anna Karenina response—and invitation— "Happy families are all alike." At this level, Lara works best. The affair begins and Michael is hardly subtle as he skates closer to the edge with Lara. He drinks more and stays out to all hours of the night, while neglecting the needs and company of his family. A price quickly begins to accrue.

Kristin isn't dumb. Though the accident with Paul now has her immersed in an upscale Bible study, she nevertheless remains suspicious of her husband. Paul is also picking up on changes in Dad and starts to act out. But Michael is in too deep now. There are rough sexual games, guns, and some mean racquetball. However, the recent death of a brother forces Lara to revisit her past, which is on an island near Haiti. This memory triggers Lara's disintegration. It seems her brother, on his island—St. Trinity—had stolen her soul, and she needs to get it back through a vudoun ceremony.

At this point, things are getting pretty cluttered in the novel. Does Stone wish his novel to be a noirish thriller or a black comedy? I suppose there's no reason why both can't be done—Jim Thompson proved that numerous times—but the jarring tone shift that occurs in the novel risks going beyond a narrative surprise. What had started out as an American tale of adultery and other small town darknesses transitions quite suddenly into a Hawthorne-like tale, with an international Goodman Brown moving down a phantasmagoric woodland path filled with monsters, both external and internal. Like the original, Michael has left behind his Faith—what little there was of it. How readers will respond to this shift will vary, no doubt creating camps of those that love Stone's experimentation and those that simply find it incoherent. There will also be those, like myself, who can stake out a middle ground by carefully following the author's thread through the murky night, while at the same time not letting the story become overwhelmed by the shadows.

For Stone's purposes, Lara's home, St. Trinity, is something of a generic “hotspot.” Although similar to Compostela from Stone's Flag for Sunrise, it lacks that novel's topical link to the troubles of the time. There are rumors of rebels, the CIA, Special Ops, Columbian drug runners—all roaming the countryside and armed to the teeth. In the hills, voudon drums constantly beat out the island's troubling heartbeat. The place is quickly going to hell in a handbasket. Somehow, knowledge of this rapidly growing, but seemingly remote, danger reaches Michael while stateside, as both he and Lara schedule to meet—and to dive—during the Easter break. He is also there to lend support to the suddenly weak Lara, who is frantic over her lost soul. The cast of characters is ludicrous and for the most part evil. Even the more neutral ones are over the top. For example, Liz McKie, a reporter, and probable CIA informant, has a manic, in-your-face air about her. She's like Dennis Hopper whooping it up over Kurtz while still insisting she's trying to do a job. Basically, like Michael, she digs the action and the danger. She is also not to be trusted.

Michael lands in this mess and undergoes something of a transformation. Gone is the drunk, lets-have-fun guy, and now comes the hero. A plane—seeking to get out before the balloon goes up—goes down in the bay with some valuable goods, which angers the resident Columbian drug lords. The connection between Lara's brother and the drug lords is only hinted at, leaving the reader to make guesses in the dark. Michael is dragooned—for love's sake, not to mention Lara's life, to make a night-time dive for the goods. This is another very effective and well-written section. Though different, it also recalls a similar scene from Stone's earlier Flag for Sunrise. Both Holliwell from Flag for Sunrise and Ahearn in Bay of Souls find themselves making an actual but also metaphysical descent into the unknown.

If Bay of Souls is about anything, it's about descent. Michael's chance, his opportunity, is only partially grasped. In the end, he plays Judas to both himself and Lara. When Lara earlier asks Ahearn whether he is with her —in the ranks of death,—he must ultimately answer "No"—not that far, baby. Lara, despite her jetsetting hipness, is indeed quite true in her passions. She does love Michael. In the end, it's Michael that hedges (before the cock crows?), though one can hardly blame him as he runs through a demon-filled night, dodging fire-drenched necklacing parties and dancing with a cigar-smoking vudoun witch. Transcendence has its price, and its price is harrowing.

What waits for him at home is not only diminished, it is gone. Kristin has found his hunting friend—and probable local CIA recruiter—to be more attuned to the dull life, while Michael's son is distant and disturbed. Even Megan the barmaid is changed, but in a way that suggests she has found her own walk on the wild side right in the U.S.A. Bay of Souls is not Stone's best work. It is largely a return to areas previously mined—and mined better—in earlier novels. Still, Bay of Souls is a good novel and worth a careful reading. Stone, as always, is the serious craftsman dealing with serious themes. It is a disturbing novel, filled with haunting images that resonate both in meaning and vividness long after the book is finished. Stone's nightmarish island in the sun will stand as that author's own small heart of darkness.

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