Review of Bay of Souls

by Robert Stone

Houghton Mifflin 2003  256 pp. 25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

            Robert Stone has invested his considerable literary gifts in a series of novels that, despite their differences in geography and plot, share an ongoing concern: a naďve, weak, yet sincere man who finds his moral character tested by a confrontation with the dark violence of other men.  Bay of Souls continues this inquiry, with considerably less success than many of his previous efforts.

            Michael Ahearn is an English professor at an obscure college in frigid Minnesota.  A local, “an overeducated hick,” he finds himself marooned in midlife with a quiet Luthern wife and fellow academic, Kristin, and their son, Paul.  Ahearn loves his son, but not quite as much as his desire to escape from a life characterized by an inchoate spiritual barrenness. 

            On a hunting trip that opens the novel, Ahearn is confronted by his own human limitations, both as a man and as a father.  “A man without a meaning was a paltry thing, and increasingly, since the day of the deer hunt, he had seen himself revealed as one.”

            Ahearn has become increasing isolated from his wife, who suspects him of infidelity with his beautiful graduate assistant, Phyllis Strom.  Phyllis is innocent, but provides an inadvertent professional link to one of Ahearn’s colleagues, the exotically beautiful Marie-Claire Purcell, a.k.a. Lara, from St. Trinity, “a poor island on the elbow of the Winwards.” 

            Ahearn was initially suspicious of Lara, “one of the overpaid Eurotrash faculty who frequented each other’s houses for edible food and adult conversation and liked to photograph roadside diners and picturesque gas stations.“  However, her beauty, sophistication, and sexual allure eliminated any hesitation he might have had.

            Ahearn’s affair with Lara deepens, and Kristin grows increasingly suspicious.  Lara surprises Ahearn with the news that her brother, Jean-Paul, has died, and she must return to St. Trinity immediately.  Ahearn contrives a story for his wife, and he and Lara leave for the Caribbean.  Amid the violence of a political uprising, a costly and dangerous accident, and the omnipresent drums of a voodoo ceremony, Ahearn will discover whether “he had broken free into a different life” or destroyed the only existence that could have made sense to him, his wife and son.

            Passionate, yet emotionally repressed; spiritually bereft, yet searching; alienated, yet hopeful: Ahearn is the ill-formed child of Hemingway and Greene.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Not only Stone, but Richard Ford, Russell Banks and others continue usefully to mine this now-hoary vein of American literature.  However, Bay of Souls is too familiar, and this conventional material has been handled much better, by other authors and Stone himself.

            Stone attempts to set up his character with a brittle past: “He was the only child of a widow; his father had died in Michael’s infancy. His mother had been erratic, demanding, flirtatious, constantly threatening him with the abridgment of love.”  Ahearn is placed in a church pew, having a hard time of it.  But the moves are too perfunctory to be convincing.

            His love interest, Lara, is an appealing stereotype for the male reader: the beautiful, amoral exotic.  When she returns to her island, however, she becomes another person altogether.  The urban sophisticate is transformed into the superstitious island temptress, beholden to an inexpertly presented series of voodoo ceremonies.  Her emotional outbursts amid the thumping of the drums are risible.

            Ever since Dog Soldiers, his second novel, Stone has transformed the characters of a series of self-regarding men, leaving us wondering at the end whether the terrible self-knowledge they acquired was worth the struggle.  Let’s hope that Stone’s next novel, like so many of his others, will surprise, entertain and educate.