20. & 21. Works by Robert Stone, “Under the Pitons”, Bay of Souls, and The Death of the Black Haired Girl

11 Apr

Under the Pitons, Robert Stone

“Under the Pitons” by Robert Stone is one of the world’s perfect short stories, a hard-edged thriller about an Irishman named Blessington, a line cook at French resorts who is piloting a sailboat full of drugs between St. Vincent and Martinique. In the opening lines Blessington is

“trying to forget the anxieties of the deal, the stink of menace, the sick ache behind the eyes.”

He’s a civilian in over his head, and the adventure quickly turns nail-biting and possibly fatal as he nearly runs into a barge under tow “a big black homicidal juggernaut, unmarked and utterly unlighted, bearing down on them” and then admits that the close call was his fault,

“stoned and drunk as he was….  his peripheral vision was flashing him little mongoose darts, shooting stars composed of random light.”

Stone is masterful at conveying the fear of being in the hands of this flawed captain in a tiny boat on dark water. And then the boat’s other occupants come into view and things get scarier. The boss is a drug-crazed Frenchman named Freycinet. Two women have come along in the misguided spirit of fun. Freycinet is sampling the product and irrationally insists that the boat take anchor off St. Lucia, within view of the Piton mountains, despite the reefs, the current and the inevitability of unwelcome attention from shore.

The story has all of Stone’s themes rendered down. There’s a flawed man, physical bravery, a world where Christianity is losing its grasp, the wonder and terror of nature or fate in such a world, and finally the religious question. Why is this man named Blessington? Are we to believe that in the end he was blessed, and if so by what?

A possible answer—though in a very backwards way—might be “blessed by love”. Blessington’s “designated girlfriend” on the trip is an American model named Gillian. Her first line upon seeing the Pitons is “Oh wow, look at those pretty mountains” a comment which as Blessington explains, is

“exactly the kind of American comment that made the others all despise and imitate her”.

But Gillian quickly turns out to be playing the other three as fools. By the return trip, Blessington is “starting to see the point of her” and they half-seriously vow to marry if they both survive.

Gillian also has most of the story’s great lines. In one exchange Blessington asks her if she’s a cop, and she says No, are you? And he replies, “Me? I’m Irish for Christ’s sake.” Her retort is, “‘Is that like not being real?’” Cutting and also very clever.

But she’s self-destructive. She says,

“‘Just between you and me, Liam, I have no fear of dying. I would just as soon be out here on this boat now as in my comfy little bed with my stuffed animals. I would just as soon be dead.’”

Her eventual fate seems to play into a Stone theme of wasted gifts—which I gather he thinks is one of our central problems.He struggles with the idea that there is something sacred, divine, worthy about our raw material. Life is a gift, so then what are we going to do with it?

He has a character say so in a different book, writing about abortion:

“‘We are taught that the universe is beautiful. We believe it is good. We believe its phenomena reflect a perfection beyond our understanding but that we can partly experience. Sort of. Man–I should say humankind, shouldn’t I?–is also sacred. Reflecting that being we know as God. Matter, stuff, quickened to human life, is therefore sacred.”

Stone recently passed away, and his thumbnail bio tells us that he was partially raised in a Catholic orphanage so it makes sense that for him the religious question is pressing. It haunts the other two novels of his I recently read, Bay of Souls, and Death of the Black Haired Girl (from which the above quote was taken.) Both are about married male academics wasting their own gifts by having affairs with dangerous women, and the metaphysical questions these affairs pose. Death of the Black Haired Girl, especially, was a work of interesting construction, with multiple viewpoints and folded layers.

I love Stone as a writer but I find “Under the Pitons” more perfect than the novels. It’s a faster and more deadly way of asking the recurring question: Why is this man named Blessington? In what ways might he be blessed?

6 Responses to “20. & 21. Works by Robert Stone, “Under the Pitons”, Bay of Souls, and The Death of the Black Haired Girl”

  1. shadowoperator April 12, 2015 at 5:21 pm #

    I’m sad to say I’ve never read anything by Robert Stone–I guess the publicity about him always made me feel he was the sort of writer who only writes for men, only has at heart the interests of men, only is interested in the pursuits and perspectives of men. Maybe having read your review(s), I will be more open-minded about him in the future.

    • Ivalleria April 12, 2015 at 5:32 pm #

      Well, I would agree that he focuses a bit too much on female characters as sources of dangerous sexuality. And that he’s pretty explicitly interested in Men. The novels especially weren’t works that I particularly identified with, though they were entertaining books and written by a master. If you’re going to read anything go read the Pitons story. It’s to die for. You have to sign up to Narrative, but that’s free. Go! Try it! Tell me what you think!

  2. scottedwardsinchicago April 25, 2015 at 4:02 am #

    I have a first edition of Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors. I love and hate the man, and honestly I just discovered that he was dead, reading your review replies. I wished I would have known him – he seemed to need a friend in this world. Of course, what did I know then or what do I know now of Robert Stone, other than that his writing was compelling, intoxicating and maddening.

    I read Outerbridge Reach and was destroyed by it. A strong Naval man, painted red, white and blue, is out-tacked by a sleeze-bucket director, Ron Strickland. Depression swallowed me for two days; I was lost and dumbfounded, shocked that a book could affect me so, just as Owen Browne seemed swallowed by the weight of the world. I’ll put this on my list.

    • Ivalleria April 25, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

      Wow, amazing! So cool that you’re so into him. I think I’ll read Outerbridge Reach, based on this. Here’s an article written by Tom Beller about him when he died. One thing for sure about him is that he writes like an angel.

      • scottedwardsinchicago April 25, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

        Wow back, squared!! This was my first mail/read of the day. I went straight to your link. It all made so much sense, so much sense. I’m so glad I somehow stumbled on to you by toying with WordPress just so I could understand the process. You really made my day, weekend, V… or is it IV? ;)

        • Ivalleria April 28, 2015 at 1:58 am #

          Aw KingEdwards, you are too kind. I am always so glad to meet other readers. Thank you so much for your comments.

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