Since 1967, Robert Stone has written consistently high quality fiction that straddles the line between thriller and literary novel. Stone’s characters often search for escape from themselves and their pasts in foreign climates and drugs, whereupon they become increasingly unmoored in an unstable political landscape that mirrors their mental derangement. Stone began his career dropping LSD with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and his work has had a psychedellic edge ever since, often with prophetic overtones.
His first novel, Hall of Mirrors (1966), anticipates the rise of right-wing talk radio in the context of the social underworld of New Orleans. His second, Dog Soldiers (1974), assigns a hallucinatory quality to its Vietnam War setting in a fictive style reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson and the pulpy brilliance of Jim Thompson. In one of Stone’s best novels,Children of Light (1986), screenwriter Gordon Walker wrestles with cocaine addiction as he returns to his romance with Lee Verger, an actress who struggles with manic delusions while starring in a film production in California. All of the major characters are neurotic, which suits the Hollywood context. More recently, Stone’s epic-length novelDamascus Gate (1998) anticipates the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when characters seeking religious enlightenment in Jerusalem become entangled in a terrorist operation. In every novel, Stone creates tension between his characters’ delusions and his carefully detailed style, and in the process he shows how experimentation can lead to both freedom and chaos.
Perhaps in reaction to the complexity of Damascus Gate, Stone streamlined Bay of Souls into a compact thriller. The book uses the conventions of the academic midlife crisis novel to question how much risk a character like Michael Ahearn, English professor, should take to escape the stultification of his complacent family life and career.
Bay of Souls begins in the vein of James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970), with Michael and his cronies hunting in the wilds of Minnesota, but Michael’s attempts at Hemingwayesque role-playing are limited by his daydreaming—he brings a gun only to justify his presence out in the woods. While Michael waits in a deer stand, a strange hunter despairingly stumbles by, trying to haul a large buck on a pitifully inadequate wheelbarrow. Michael takes pleasure in the other man’s humiliation, but the experience proves prophetic of several burdens assumed during the novel and the difficulty characters will have sustaining them. For instance, soon after the hunting incident, Michael’s son Paul almost dies from exposure after searching for his dog in the snow. Then Michael’s wife, Kristin, breaks her leg trying to carry her son home. After this trauma, Michael finds his relations with his wife deteriorating, and so he turns to the attentions of Lara Purcell, a professor of political science.
A femme fatale with an interest in Caribbean voodoo, Lara leads Michael into high-stakes adultery, which includes erotic play with a gun and cocaine use. She has a murky background involving Soviet espionage and links to South American organized crime. Her devil-may-care attitude toward danger seduces Michael into trying to live out the literary vitalism that he has been studying in his literature class.
In an interview appearing on the Web site of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, Stone defines vitalism as “the ideas of redemption through struggle, the match of love and death, the cleansing force of battle and the intensification of life through risk.” Vitalist classic works of fiction include Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), in which a young soldier seeks transcendence from his identity through the battles of the Civil War, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899)—a big influence on Stone’s Children of Light—in which Edna Pontillier risks social ostracism as she pursues self-fulfillment through adultery. Bay of Souls combines elements of these novels when Michael sleeps with Lara without...
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