Maybe you know the old jazz joke about the castaway on the island where the natives are terrified that the drumming will stop. What happens when the drumming stops? he asks. That, the natives say in horror, is when the bass solo begins.
Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I kept thinking about that joke as I read Robert Stone’s absorbing, fast-paced, but slightly underbaked Bay of Souls. The drums here serve as accompaniment to a Caribbean island-nation’s violent revolution, the protagonist’s emotional evolution, and his love interest’s spiritual reconstitution. College professor Michael Ahearn tries to “unravel the rhythms and count the number of drums….The voices in the drums were as good as infinite with their turns and shadows, doubling and tripling and repeating and commenting on their own tattoos. Covering each other, featuring the premonition of a beat, the beat itself, its echo.”
The thriller has so much drumming, literal and figurative, and grips so tightly with its taxed Conradian fingertips, that it veers perilously close to self-parody. And because seriousness is its core, even a whiff of the overwrought is potentially lethal to its thematic and stylistic mission. Stone is a skilled writer, and the drums eventually sound an acceptable existential bebop. But we still come away a little dissatisfied, because the story could have been so much more chilling with just a little further shading, if it were more like Stone’s harrowing Dog Soldiers, another lean tale of drugs, delusions, and delirium, which Bay of Souls resembles in scale and shape.
We meet Michael, a Minnesota literature professor, in the midst of a contemplative life of gentle companionship with his wife, Kristin, and their almost-teenage son, Paul. Stone’s cool, flat prose conveys the characters’ cool, flat affect and the cool, flat physical and cultural landscape. And it’s effective in describing an eerie deer-hunting trip that Michael takes with two campus colleagues, an outing on which Michael spies a hapless hunter grotesquely carting his kill in an unwieldy wheelbarrow.
Michael rushes home from the trip upon learning that Paul’s been brought near death from exposure to the cold while looking for his dog, and Kristin’s been injured trying to rescue Paul. Those events change Michael, flatten him further, nudge him over the border of his borderline alcoholism, alienate him from his wife’s dry, stern religious devotion and his son’s terrifying vulnerability—the vulnerability, by extension, of us all.
But Michael’s bigger problems, and to some degree Stone’s, begin with the introduction of the alluring but undercharacterized femme fatale, Lara. An expert in Third World politics and a native of St. Trinity, a Caribbean island that feels like Haiti, she has a past that is spooky, in both the Langley and voodoo senses of the word. A little research and a few whispers from Michael’s savvy sociologist pal suggest that Lara’s not your average political scientist next door and that maybe she’s been sent to the boonies by suited Eastern puppet masters until things on the espionage front cool down. Her partisan and operational leanings appear to have been right, or left, or both, and her ties to the intelligence underworld are coupled with those of St. Trinity’s spiritual underworld.
As if all that weren’t enough to knock Michael off his booze-soaked marital axis, Lara is also athletic, witty, kinky, not averse to the occasional line of coke, and, of course, a babe.
She had made a sleek black helmet of her thick hair. She had a vest of black leather, tight trousers that might have been deerskin or goatskin, only slightly off-white. Black boots…
Her games tightened his throat, shortened his breathing, set him aching. They also consumed him with something like superstitious dread. He had come to love the fantasies she played out—if love was the word for it—but they were rooted in the darkest, most secret and ashamed quarters of his nature.
His superstitious dread is rooted, perhaps, in hers, for she has lost her soul, she believes—her “ti bon ange,” as she puts it in her island patois—and she returns to St. Trinity to get it back from her recently deceased brother, John-Paul. Michael, at this point passive way past prudence, if not credibility, follows her there for an iffy-sounding scuba adventure. He’s trying to prove himself worthy of her, never mind the bloody coup that’s going on and, oh yeah, the Colombian-drug-cartel complications.
Stone, who lives part time in Key West, has a wonderful feel for the Caribbean’s sensual breezes, its ambivalent anti-Americanism and disdain toward tourists, its spiritual swoon. And Lara’s crazed quest to retrieve her soul from the voudon goddess Marinette and other disrespectful specters is a captivating counterpoint to Michael’s quest to lose his soul in Lara’s deep, troubled vitality.
But Lara, in addition to maybe not being all there psychologically (she seems faintly homicidal and suicidal in equal measures, and she enjoys a bit of gunplay in bed), isn’t all there as a character, either. A nostalgic ocean swim, a visit to her old parochial school, a few words exchanged with John-Paul’s dapper lover, Roger, sketch a childhood of colorful, postcolonial privilege. But whether she sees in Michael a real match, a witness to her uncertain fate, a naif to toy with, or a philosophical or erotic experiment is never quite clear. Maybe all of the above—we could be convinced. But cipher or no, as the bait luring Michael into the deep cave of his own weakness and unmet needs, Lara would be more convincing if she were more real to us, if Stone had fleshed out this wild, passionate creature.
Still, better to be left wanting more, I guess. And despite the gauntness of its back story, the novel pulls us in—even the drumming.
Listening, Michael knew immediately the drums were speaking to him. It was so obvious, he thought; they had been playing out his fortunes from the first moment he had heard them, so many hours before. They had never left him. They were filled with fragments of his life’s time, encoding voices he knew….When he ran into the darkness, the drums seemed to be keeping after him.
By the time the drumming has stopped, we have conditionally surrendered to Stone’s efficient, transcendental tease. In it, we recognize, with a quick shudder of not thoroughly unpleasant dread, the perverse thrill of giving one’s soul—to a lover, a spirit, or the two in one—and wondering if that ti bon ange will ever be retrieved. CP