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BAY OF SOULS by Robert Stone Kirkus Star


by Robert Stone

Pub Date: April 22nd, 2003
ISBN: 0-395-96349-4
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Faulknerian intensity and a narrative economy reminiscent of Hemingway distinguish Stone’s bloodcurdling seventh outing (Damascus Gate, 1998, etc.), a tale that charts a midwestern college professor’s compulsive path toward self-destruction.

In a magnificent opening chapter, Stone introduces Michael Ahearn, living in Iron Falls, Minnesota, with his wife Kristin and preadolescent son Paul, and seeking the kind of “bliss” he intuits from the vitalist tradition in American fiction (his specialty) in heavy drinking and occasional hunting trips. Returning from one such trip, Michael learns that Paul has almost frozen to death and Kristin has injured herself rescuing him. This incident, and other indistinctly ominous particulars (a dropped flashlight, a slain deer’s carcass carried in a wheelbarrow), foreshadow Ahearn’s hallucinatory free fall, conceived as “the purifying effect of struggle,” but realized as obsessive infatuation with an alluring colleague, political-science professor Lara Purcell. Michael follows Lara to the embattled Caribbean island of St. Trinity, ostensibly so that she can attend a “ceremony of reclamation” for the soul of her late brother, an AIDS victim, and sell their family’s property: the Bay of Souls Hotel. Instead, Lara succumbs to the irrational power of the island’s voudon culture, and Michael—coincidentally an experienced diver—is persuaded to brave the depths of a coral reef, where an airplane carrying mysterious contraband has sunk. An ongoing island war, a “peacekeeping” military junta, unidentified American interests, Colombian militias, and various adventurers and burnt-out cases are the ingredients of a compact sulfurous melodrama whose working-out convinces the mesmerized Ahearn that St. Trinity is in fact hell (and Lara its likely agent), nor is he out of it. A perfectly calibrated ironic final chapter brings the story to a stunning full-circle conclusion.

A small masterpiece, possessed of a relentless lucidity that recalls Conrad and Graham Greene at their peaks. Stone’s best yet.