Death of the Black-Haired Girl a Cut above Standard Thrillers

Robert Stone
Houghton-Mifflin, 978-0618386239, 288 pp.  
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Robert Stone gained literary fame when Dog Soldiers won a National Book Award in 1975. Back then he was known for having been on the fringes of both the counterculture and the gonzo journalism movements, though he wasn't really immersed in the first and wrote too coherently for the second. He did/does have the edge of gonzo journalists, though fiction has always been his m├ętier.

Death of the Black-Haired Girl, his latest novel feels less weighty and important than his previous works but it's still a very good read that raises important considerations. On the surface it's a pretty simple book. Maud Stack is a beautiful, combative, student from Queens who is studying at a tony New England college because–in regional parlance–she's wicked smaht. That does not mean she always makes intelligent choices. For instance, she decides to take on the anti-abortion movement by writing an article that uses the same tactics against it: hyperbole, character assassination, incendiary language, and graphic images. She absolutely slanders the Catholic Church. Her mentor, English professor Stephen Brookman, has made some pretty dumb choices of his own. He's Maud's lover, though he is married to Ellie, a Mennonite woman and has one child and another on the way and can't find the inner strength to break with Maud. Nor did he talk her out of publishing her article. When Maud and Stephen have a confrontation on his doorstep, Maud steps into what was supposed to be a blocked-off street and is killed by a speeding hit-and-run driver. Did she walk into its path, or was she pushed? Accident or murder?

This may sound like a run-of-the-mill mystery thriller and so it is to some degree, but Stone has more depth than the average purveyor of pulp. It is a book about decisions and consequences. Maud is reckless in other ways. She frequents dives along the town's seedy wharf area, walks in areas known to be unsafe, doesn't avoid the mentally ill street people who lurk in the shadows of her campus, and is so self-righteous she absolutely refuses to exercise caution when her article yields death threats. Maybe it's a reaction against her father, Eddie, a beat cop who retired after 9/11 and spends his wallowing in guilt and being ineffectual.

Explorations of religious faith are a Stone staple. Death features dogma-blinded anti-abortionists, a scary Kentucky minister named Russell Fumes, Ellie's Mennonite beliefs, and a college counselor named Jo Carr who is an ex-nun who lost much but not all of her faith and worries that one of the crazies she sees wandering across campus may be the psychotic revolutionary priest she knew when working in Central America. Mainly she worries about Maud, post pre- and postmortem.

Stone also plumbs questions of madness and forces us to see the type that lurks on the surface and the varieties that linger within. The plot of this novel may owe something to a 1988 murder at Yale, and though the novel is set in a town called Amesbury, it sure feels like New Haven, CT, a place where the lines between order and chaos are exceedingly thin. (Stone also taught at Yale for a time, so it's certainly plausible to think New Haven was in his thoughts.)

 Not everything in this novel works. Maud's roommate, Southern-born actress Shelby Magoffin, isn't a well-realized character, and her ex-husband, John Clammer, is akin to a two-dimensional cardboard silhouette. The investigation into what happened to Maud–which involves her father and a former colleague–is pretty conventional, at least until Eddie and Stephen meet. But Stone is very good at showing the frisson between Maud and Stephen, and deliciously cold when members of the college must own the consequences of their inaction. Stone is at his Hawthorne-like best when reminding us that both action and non-action demand payment to the piper.
-Rob Weir


Benghazi, Bergdahl, and Bullshit

What does it tell you when she's more trustworthy than the GOP?

I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton, but she’s the next coming of Socrates on the wisdom scale compared to moron Republicans that want to castigate her for the Benghazi tragedy or President Obama for the prisoner exchange that returned Bowe Bergdhal to the United States. Republican behavior has officially slithered across the line separating sleaziness from insanity.

In her new book, Clinton recalls how Republicans attempted to grill her over Benghazi. It’s small wonder they’re out there slandering her from afar, because she made mincemeat of them in the Senate chamber in 2013. When asked to clarify why Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi she testily replied, “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’ll go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” If you think she’s apologizing for such a terse remark, think again. In her book she states categorically, “I will not be part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.”

Republicans, of course, charge Mrs. Clinton with trying to dodge the consequences of her mistakes. Just like they accuse President Obama of not doing his homework before exchanging five Taliban terrorists held at Guantanamo for Sgt. Bergdhal, who might (pretty significant qualification) have abandoned his unit. “Bad trade!” they cry. Do Republicans really want to pursue either line of reasoning? Let’s do just that.

Let’s look at the Great American Faux Hero: Ronald Reagan. Let’s hunt down everyone still alive from his administration. We want to know about Lebanon. We want them to explain how it was possible to attack a U.S. facility in April of 1983 and kill 63, yes 63, Americans. And after such a senseless tragedy, how is it conceivable the Old Cowboy could be so friggin’ dumb as to allow a suicide bomber to wipe out 241—that’s two hundred and forty-one—Marines in their own barracks. Let’s dig up Ronnie and throw his bones to the dogs of war.

But wait! It gets worse. The USA tucked its tail between its legs and left Lebanon, but not before the terrorist group Hezbollah seized 14 hostages. Shall we discuss bad deals? One of the hostages was William Buckley (not the journalist), the head of CIA operations for the entire region. We wanted this dude back very badly. So Trader Ron opened secret channels with none other than Iran—the same Iran that seized 53 U.S. hostages just four years earlier. Team Reagan sent several planeloads of weapons to Iran for some cash--which was filtered via third parties to the Nicaraguan Contras-- and Iran’s promise to exert influence with Hezbollah to secure release of the hostages. Iran helped release exactly two hostages, neither of whom was Buckley, who died under torture. While it was happening, three more hostages were taken. Old math: 14 take away 2 and add three = 15, eight of whom remained captive until 1992. Now that’s what I call a really bad trade! Oh, did I mention that all of this was illegal and that Reagan could/should have been impeached for it? He probably would have if Lyin’ Ollie North hadn’t taken the bullet. (Ollie later admitted that Reagan knew all the details.)

So how do we parse the Republican position on Benghazi and Bergdahl? Let’s try a nine-letter word that begins with “hypo” and ends in “crisy.” I’d give you the unassailable facts about Benghazi and Bergdahl except that there aren’t any. Here’s what we know for sure—if you send Americans into dangerous situations amongst people who hate their guts, bad things are likely to happen. At this point we’ve no idea if Bergdahl was a deserter or a CIA operative. Likewise, for all we know, the CIA turned one or more of the prisoners exchanged for him. Or maybe it planted tracker-bots in them during a medical exam. Sound farfetched? Compared to what? Thinking Iran would help secure the release of the CIA’s bureau chief?

Hillary’s right. Once an American is dead, the discussion is moot. She stated that “there will never be perfect clarity on everything that happened [in Benghazi].” She took the moral high ground and called the current posturing nothing more than a “political slugfest.” Here’s the debate we ought to be having: Should Americans even be in places such as Lebanon in 1983, or Afghanistan in 2014? If you answered yes, be prepared for Americans to die and/or be taken hostage. If you think they can all be secured, you’re a fool. I’ll take the low road and say that any other discussion is just bullshit.


Ahmed Nasheed: Voice from the Maldives

Dhaalu Raa
Assai Records 001
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No Wikipedia peeking­Where are the Maldives and what do you know about them? You’ll find them in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka, about halfway between the Horn of Africa and Sumatra—a string of 28 small islands upon which fewer than 400,000 people live. It’s also a nation under Shar’ia law with a horrifying human rights record. In all, an unlikely place to find a musician who counts among his heroes The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and tackles women’s rights, environmental stewardship, and government corruption. Ahmed Nasheed is so out of sync with the powers that be that he gets no national airplay and has to peddle his music in tourist shops and abroad.

Ahmed’s music is a pastiche of Western rock, North African guitar, and variants of a regional style known as rairvaru, a hypnotic folk style found in the Indian subcontinent. Two of the more interesting elements are the use of female backup singers whose harmonies evoke Township music and of the log drums, the latter of which are heartbeat-like in acoustic songs, but are pounded with the fury of a Western drum kit when Ahmed plugs in for crunchy power chords. The log drums reflect the album’s dual nature: quieter songs rooted in the East and Western-influenced electric sets. Close listeners will detect musical homage and lifted phrases. “Rasge,” an anti-corruption song, leaps to reworked “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” riffs and “Sihuru” has passages similar to “You Keep Me Hanging On.” If “Fihivalhu” and a few other tunes sound like they could have come from The Beatles’ White album, it’s because Ahmed openly admires (the late) George Harrison.

The rock songs sound the most familiar to Western ears, but are perhaps too familiar. I much preferred Ahmed’s tradition-based quieter material. “Dhiyssnsge Huvafen,” for instance, is a tribute to Princess Diana, but sung in a slow chant-like fashion in which Ahmed’s expressive elides structure mood shifts. “Sheyvaa” is not a raga, but it’s evocative of music one might hear in the south of India. Ahmed is a soulful singer and a skilled guitarist who tries to merge East and West. He faces an enormous challenge­—getting Western audiences to tune into Muslim folk-rock, and getting Muslim Maldivians to open their minds to ecumenical Western culture. –Rob Weir