"Bay of Souls" by Robert Stone

A Midwestern professor's kinky affair with a Caribbean colleague takes him to an island where violence and voodoo reign.

Published April 4, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Lately Robert Stone has specialized in writing novels that combine the rich textures of literary fiction with the exciting stories of thrillers. It's a tricky form of crossbreeding, since genre fiction trafficks in wish-fulfillment -- if I only had a buck for every thriller whose hero is a cool-headed, middle-aged Maverick With a Past who keeps himself in great shape and winds up bedding a sexy rescue object half his age! -- while literary fiction usually describes the collision of dreams with reality. When Stone pulls it off -- as he does more often than not in "Bay of Souls," his new novel -- the result has a fizzy, unsettling menace. His heroes are in danger of losing not just their lives but, as is the case with Michael Ahearn, the protagonist of this book, also their souls.

To be fair, literary fiction has its formulas, too, and "Bay of Souls" seems to start in the well-worn groove of one of them, the Professor Novel. Michael, whose age isn't given but seems to be about 40, is a desultory Catholic who teaches English at an unexceptional rural college in the Midwest. He has a 12-year-old son, a cooling marriage, and a "very pretty" teaching assistant who's devoted to him. There's a crisis in which Michael's son Paul almost dies and the shock further estranges Michael and his wife. You think you know where this is going, and you've been there too many times before. The young grad student will offer Michael a new lease on life, about which he will feel both entitled and defensive, and he'll wind up the target of some campus witch-hunt.

Then things take an unexpected turn. Another woman surfaces. She's Lara Purcell, a political science professor with Caribbean Creole roots. She makes cutting remarks about "gallant little social egalitarian feminist" students who "mouth pious prattle in American kiddie-speak," she trounces Michael at racquetball ("I'll have your soft heart on a dish," she says after he asks her to teach him squash), and when he tries to look her up on the Web, he stumbles on a site that makes a "vaguely forbidding" demand for a password. And when Michael goes home after that racquetball game and finds himself unexpectedly aroused by a quarrel with his wife, he realizes "he was bored with pondering the etiology of his own hard-ons, his own insights, literary and otherwise." Clearly, this ain't no Philip Roth novel.

Michael allows himself to get sucked into a vertiginous affair with Lara. Rather predictably, it involves kinky sex, cocaine and erotic cavortings with a handgun, but Lara comes attached to less pedestrian dangers as well. Gradually we learn that she is half-extricated from a complicated past that includes an ex-husband with whom she worked as an "agent of influence" for the Soviets, a 180-degree switch in allegiance to a shadowy right-wing outfit run by a scary Argentinian, and a brother back on St. Trinity, the island where she grew up, who is entangled with the same right-wing outfit and certain Colombians involved in various lucrative illegal enterprises.

However, as Lara sees it, her biggest problem is that she has no soul; her brother has given it to La Marinette, a vengeful demigod, sprung from the first slave to draw French blood in the Haitian revolt, who lives in the bay of St. Trinity. When Lara's brother dies, she wants to go back to the island to participate in a rite that might recapture her soul. She asks Michael to come with her, even though the island is falling into chaos as the reigning junta refuses to cede power to the newly elected government.

Admittedly, Lara and St. Trinity -- a fever dream of soldiers, burning roadblocks and incessant drumbeats from the hills -- can't quite transcend their roles as exotic catalysts. There is, however, a spectacular scene involving a night scuba dive to the wreck of a crashed plane, and a savory, cynical conversation with the island's new leader, who asks Michael, "How'd you like to live in someone else's paradise? ... Think of it as a misfortune. A huge fucking pink misfortune." This is the territory of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene; the focus of the novel is Michael and the subterranean forces that draw him to this catastrophe. The florid adventures he finds on St. Trinity -- being menaced by the Colombians, harassed by a Miami Herald reporter and, of course, swept up in a frenzied voudoun ritual -- are actually less gripping than Stone's exquisite construction of his character in the scenes back home.

Does Lara ruin Michael's life or nearly save it? That's the central mystery of "Bay of Souls." The novel begins with a strange scene in the snowy woods, in which Michael, who is out deer hunting with friends, observes unseen a fellow hunter raging as he struggles to haul a dead buck out of the woods with a crappy, dysfunctional wheelbarrow. Michael is convinced the other man will shoot him if he discovers that his humiliation has been witnessed, but luckily he goes unspotted. When Michael gets home that night, he learns his son has gotten lost in the snow and is lying in the hospital, near death from hypothermia.

Michael is terrified to see his son when he thinks the boy is dying, but when the crisis is safely past, he feels oddly deflated. He had been "afraid, for a while, that there was something out there, at the beginning and the end of consciousness. An alpha and an omega to things ... And that night, he had felt certain, the fire would be visited on him. His boy would be taken away and he would know, know absolutely, the power of the most high. Its horrible providence. Its mysteries. Its hide-and-seek, and lessons."

The two events precipitate an obscure spiritual crisis in Michael. He is the beneficiary of "random singularity, a mere machine" that "required no sacrifice." Even before he meets Lara, he fears that he has become a "man without a meaning" and feels, stirring in his blood, a latent Scandinavian heritage of "secrets ... deep melancholy. Sudden death." It is the death and destruction wrapped in Lara's sensuality that attracts him, not the sex itself. Brutal and lawless as St. Trinity may be, it speaks to a bleak heart of darkness within Michael and promises him the possibility of transcendence if he has the courage to pursue it to the very end.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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