Monday, March 22, 2010

Posthumously Styron

I realize that sometimes this blog reads a bit too much like a travelogue and other times a bit too much like a book review. I intended to spare you, for a while, any more opinions about recent releases, but I feel the need to blog about a little book of stories that I picked up at the library the other day. It's called The Suicide Run, an assembly of five fictions by William Styron that were not published in a collection during his lifetime. The five pieces span his career, the first having been written in 1953, the last in the late 90s. They all relate to, and make use of, the author's experience of serving in the Marine Corps as a young man. For lovers of Styron's work and for those curious about the man--I count myself in both categories--the collection is at turns exhilerating and sad. Exhilerating for the opportunity to live again within the beauty of Styron's prose and the forcefulness of his vision; sad for missed opportunities, for the promise of books never finished and the knowledge of how his still vibrant career was virtually halted by a battle with depression that almost killed him and then later did.

The first story in the book, "Blankenship," is a fine example of the younger Styron: the gothic, gloomy southern stylist still under the pall of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. It's a successful if unnecessarily dense story but not what finally makes the collection. The most engaging and fascinating pieces, the heart of the book, are the middle three--"Marriott, the Marine," "The Suicide Run," and "In My Father's House." The first two were written in the early 70s, the latter in the mid-80s, and they bear all the hallmarks of a writer at the height of his power. The prose is clean and rigorous; the stories are honest, virtually naked (literally and figuratively). While definitely fictions, the stories' first person narrators are Styron only thinly diguised. In fact, hardly disguised at all. That, in fact, being the point. What is heartbreaking about these three pieces is that they all stem from novels begun but not completed. Styron abandoned the novel that would have included "Marriott, the Marine" and "The Suicide Run" in order to write Sophie's Choice. While one can hardly regret the remarkable novel that resulted from this decision, one wishes he could have found his way back to the earlier novel--about a young writer on the cusp of first success who is called back into military service as a result of the Korean war--and seen it through.

But even more cause for regret is the beautiful, wistful "In My Father's House," about a young, would-be writer just home from WWII, trying to collect his life and his psyche after a disturbing tour of duty in the Pacific. This piece--the star of the collection and one of the best things Styron ever wrote--was meant to be the introduction to a novel that in the end he couldn't continue. Almost certainly because of his descent into, and long difficult escape from, clinical depression (famously chronicled in Darkness Visible). There is only one piece in the collection that derives from the author's later years, a tiny unsatisfying note of a thing called "Elobey, Annobón, and Corisco"; it's more of a gesture than a story, something that feels tossed off and tells the reader nothing that he has not already learned from "In My Father's House." "Elobey, Annobón, and Corisco" only makes one wish even harder that Styron could have continued with "In My Father's House" or fiction writing at all. It is a sad fact to swallow, and The Suicide Run only brings it home all over again, that even after his apparent (and, ultimately, temporary) recovery from depression, in the 1990s Styron's output of original fiction was nearly nonexistent. The medical tragedy that shook this great writer, and almost brought him to suicide, effectively shut down one of the most invaluable of 20th century voices.


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