Bay of Souls
by Robert Stone
Published by Houghton Mifflin
249 pages, 2003
Losing My Religion
Reviewed by David Abrams
So I'm sitting here with the new Robert Stone novel, Bay of Souls, at my elbow, not sure where to start.
I loved it.
I hated it.
You know, the old "devil on one shoulder, angel on the other" dilemma. It's like a bone-crunching body slam at a wrestling match (Halos vs. Horns) the way those two go at it, leaving me to referee the winning and losing points of Stone's book. What to do, what to do?
Let's start with the guy in the halo. As the title suggests, Stone's book is all about the soul -- not just the ethereal, intangible fluff of late-night TV gurus or chicken soup books, but the Soul as a character -- just on the vapory side of flesh and blood. Stone has wrestled with the spirit in most of his other novels: on the high seas (Outerbridge Reach), in Jerusalem (Damascus Gate), on a movie set (Children of Light). However, this book, his shortest yet, pins the exhausted reader against the mat with its unrelenting examination of spiritual matters. It's brilliant in that regard (thus saith the shoulder-angel).
Echoing grand masters of the past like Joseph Conrad and Henry James -- who often devoted entire volumes to characters sitting around agonizing over the state of the soul -- Stone unsparingly goes for the choke-hold as he examines the life of one Michael Ahearn, a comfortably-married professor at a small Midwestern college, who becomes obsessed with an alluring faculty member and spirals into adultery, deceit and voodoo when he follows the woman to back to her native Caribbean island of St. Trinity.
Bay of Souls opens with a haunting chapter as Ahearn goes deer hunting with two of his colleagues. Ahearn likes the aura of the hunt -- the early-morning rising, the coffee and bagged sandwiches, the tramp through the silent woods, the glass of expensive whiskey around the potbellied stove -- more than he does the actual kill. The trip soon turns into a journey through the landscape of the spirit, in the heart of a family man's darkness.
Michael had come armed into the woods for the customary reason, to simplify life, to assume an ancient uncomplicated identity. But the thoughts that surfaced in his silence were not comforting. The image of himself, for instance, as an agent of providence. The fact that for every creature things waited.
Though not a religious man, Ahearn is hyper-spiritual, constantly examining his place in the world and his relation to God, fretting about "the power of the most high. Its horrible providence. Its mysteries, its hide-and-seek, and lessons, and redefined top-secret mercies to be understood through prayer and meditation."
His epiphany comes when he's perched God-like in a deer stand and watches another hunter struggle to haul his ten-point buck out of the woods, the angry man cursing every step of the way as the deer keeps falling out of his wheelbarrow. The scene is chilling in the way it works on both the literal and spiritual levels.
Many of the novel's pages are filled with these dual-layered images. Earlier, Ahearn loses the group's only flashlight on the hunt -- and it's a powerful portent of the things to come. His spiritual lamp will be doused -- or, at the very least, the wind will beat down upon the flame, making it flicker and gutter.
He and Lara, the beautiful woman who says she's lost her soul, go to the Caribbean at Easter, where the air throbs with tribal drumbeats. Both will be reborn on St. Trinity -- one relieved of spiritual burden, while the other is doomed to live the rest of life going through hell. Ahearn gets tangled in murky politics and spiritualism as he first pursues Lara, then tries to escape with his life and soul intact. It's on the island where things really fall apart for Ahearn and for the reader (my shoulder-devil clears his throat).
While there is one harrowing scene where Ahearn must dive down to a submerged plane wreck to recover smuggled goods, most of the second half of Bay of Souls is underdeveloped, like a hallucinogenic dream where all the good parts have been left out.
The story runs in fits and starts -- a sharp contrast to the tight coil of the book's earlier pages -- and Stone only redeems himself in the final chapter when Ahearn has returned from the island and finds his familiar world has gone sour, a world where he no longer has a significant place.
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.
Bay of Souls is by no means paltry -- Stone's intensity could never let it be anything less than a substantial piece of fiction -- but there are times (and I'm sure both of those guys on my shoulders would agree) that it could have used a little more muscle on the wrestling mat. | May 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.