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Book Review - Bay of Souls by Robert Stone

What's It All About?

Bay of Souls
Robert Stone

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Review by W. R. Greer

Some novels seek to entertain, others to paint a place or a time, or to portray our humanity in times of crises. Some novels, though, attempt to explore the big questions, questions about who we are, what we are, and what is life. Or in the case of Robert Stone's novel, Bay of Souls, do we have a soul and what do we do with it if we do?

The novel begins with a storyline that's been tread so many times that it's almost passé, but then it takes off in a totally unexpected direction. Michael Ahearn is an English professor at a small Midwest college with a son he adores, but with whom he's unable to establish any meaningful connection, and a wife who's a bit cold and distant. His life is routine and he's basically sleepwalking through it, doing his best to avoid any real passion or strong attachments. Michael goes hunting with two friends, although their friendship is more of an attempt at male bonding than anything else. Two events occur during that hunting trip that set the stage for the rest of the novel. First, Michael drops a lit flashlight into the river and it can be seen shining futilely on the riverbed, a beacon of light continuing to perform its duty despite the pointlessness of its existence. Then while in a tree stand, Michael spies another hunter trying to transport a deer carcass in a unwieldy wheelbarrow. The man cusses up a storm and is at the edge of madness every time the deer falls out of the wheelbarrow. Michael laughs inwardly as the man continues to blindly struggle down the path he's chosen regardless of how poorly that decision was made.

On the way home from the hunting trip, Michael discovers that his son, Paul, was lost in the snow and is in a coma from hypothermia. At the hospital, his wife reads aloud from the Bible, placing their son's fate in God's hand and asking for his mercy. Michael, a lapsed Catholic, doesn't see any of it as God's will, but just one of life's random events.

But now his son's life was saved. And the great thing had come of nothing, of absolutely nothing, out of a kaleidoscope, out of a Cracker Jack box. Every day its own flower, to every day its own stink and savor. Good old random singularity and you could exercise a proper revulsion for life's rank overabundance and everybody could have their rights and be happy.

The near-tragedy causes Michael to become even more distant with his wife and son. He can't sleep and he takes to drinking too much. He's bored with his life and exhausted with his own introspection. "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." Against this backdrop, Lara Purcell enters his life. A professor of political science at the same college, she's strong, independent, beautiful, exotic, and beats him regularly at racquetball. Michael falls for her immediately and she lets him. Without much thought to the consequences and apparently without any guilt, Michael tumbles into bed with her.

Lara Purcell claims to be a woman without a soul. She takes charge of the relationship, even to the point of schooling Michael on the lies he must tell his wife. She introduces cocaine, S&M, and a loaded revolver into their sexual play. Michael, even in fear, acquiesces to it all. It's as if Lara wants to see how far she can push him, how close to the edge she take Michael and if he'll go along for the ride. She mocks his family life, this faux-Norman Rockwell veneer that hides the truth.

Michael does some snooping to see how much he can find out about Lara. She grew up on the poor Caribbean island of St. Trinity, married a Frenchman, worked for the Soviets in Africa, and then for the Americans, and became an American citizen after the Cold War was over. Her family owns a hotel on St. Trinity which her brother managed until he died from AIDS a year ago. It was this same brother, using Voudon spells, that had stolen her soul when they were younger and sent it to the bottom of the ocean, into the Bay of Souls. Lara wants to return to the island now that her brother's soul is being retrieved from the depths in hopes of reclaiming her own. She also wants to help finalize the sale of the family property and claim her share. She asks Michael to accompany her to St. Trinity, to be there for her in her time of need and she'd reward him with a diving trip together. With barely an argument, Michael agrees to go.

St. Trinity, however, is not an island paradise, but a third world country in the midst of social upheaval. A rebel group backed by American Special Forces is overthrowing the existing military junta. Michael and Lara can't even fly into the island together. She arrives first on a private plane used for smuggling, and leaves him with instructions on how to take a bus from the airport and avoid any danger or troops on his way to the hotel. This doesn't even give Michael pause that perhaps this isn't the best of ideas. Once on St. Trinity, Michael is thrust into a world he barely understands and gets involved in conspiracies and intrigue well over his head. He does this all for Lara, much like the deer hunter with the wheelbarrow, pushing blindly ahead with the decision he's made. The drums beat constantly trying to retrieve Lara's brother's soul, the danger increases, and Michael puts on the best false bravado he can until he's forced to make a choice in the middle of Voudon ritual with gods different from his own.

Robert Stone has written a novel that is complex, perplexing, confusing, maddening, and absolutely brilliant at times. There is so much packed into this short novel that nothing is wasted. Every scene, every conversation hints at deeper themes and serves to highlight a point made later in the novel. Typical is a conversation Michael has with a student with whom he's trying to get to understand the idea of transcendance. He uses the boy's love of playing hockey to make his point.

"Because you've been up against it. Because you've been a part of something bigger than yourself. It's a kid's game but it's not really a kid's game, is it?"

"At a certain point," Keith said, "it's not a kid's game anymore."

"What is it? What is it like?"

"Like everything else," Keith said.

"It's like life, isn't it?"

"It's life," Keith said. "But it's awesome. It's better."

"More perfect," Michael suggested. "Transcended."

"Right," said Keith.

While this is a concept that Michael can teach to others, it's not one he chooses to apply to his own life. He'd rather be alone than be a willing part of something bigger than himself, whether at the college or with his family. It's not until he reaches the island of St. Trinity that he finds himself in a transcendant moment, where he's part of something much bigger than himself with the island political intrigue, the danger, the foreign environment, and the Voudon ritual to reclaim Lara's soul.

While Michael Ahearn is the vehicle that carries the big ideas of this novel, he's also the weakest link. With his lack of motivation and his aimless walk through life before meeting Lara, he's the shining flashlight at the bottom of the river. He's there to illuminate ideas, but he's without a real purpose and his light will eventually dim without one. He's sold his soul to Lara so that she could reclaim hers.

If you read this book just following the storyline, this novel will frustrate you. If you keep peeling back the layers, more ideas bubble forth, some like little quick jabs to your mind. You can choose to wander aimlessly through this book, or you can put your soul on the line and dive in deeper into the Bay of Souls.

Copyright © 2003

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