The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps
By William Styron.
Random House, 2009. 194 pages. $24.
Letters to My Father
James L.W. West III, editor.
Louisiana State University Press, 2009.
238 pages. $28.
In May of 1984, novelist William Styron '47, Hon '68 returned to Duke to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award. Before the ceremony, he sat down with Duke Magazine. Between sips of beer and puffs on a hefty cigar, Styron was ebullient when speaking of Meryl Streep's Oscar-winning performance in the movie version of his novel Sophie's Choice, but moments later, when asked about his then-current writing project—a novel set in the Pacific during World War II—his mood turned bleak.
"Writing is an awful profession," he said. "It really is. I sometimes wake up in a sweat and ask myself, 'Why did I become a writer?' It's like a progressive, slow, terminal disease. It can't get any better."
As it turned out, Styron was only months away from the onset of what became a nearly suicidal bout of depression that sent him to the hospital at the end of 1985. The result of that illness and his struggle toward recovery was Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, published in 1992. Styron never completed The Way of the Warrior, the novel he spoke about on that campus visit.
Now, more than three years after his death at the age of eighty-one, two new Styron books—The Suicide Run, a collection of war-related vignettes, and Letters To My Father, correspondence written over a decade, beginning with his undergraduate days as a Marine Corps officer-in-training at Duke—provide a window into the deep impression Styron's military service made on him. Taken together, the books also offer some clues about his struggle to create fiction from material so close to his own life.
In his boldest and best-known novels, Styron writes far beyond his own experience, mustering enormous imagination. In The Confessions of Nat Turner, for example, Styron assumed the voice of an enslaved black man in the 1800s. In Sophie's Choice, he wrote from the viewpoint of a female survivor of Auschwitz.
Relying less on his imagination and more on his own frustrations with the military, Styron's writing in The Suicide Run meanders about in search of a dramatic peak equal to the battlefield action he never experienced. (Styron was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps in July 1945 and was waiting for the order to invade Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.)
In the 1984 interview at Duke, the author hinted at the autobiographical nature of his war novel-in-the-works: The book, he explained, would end with the dropping of the atomic bomb. That event was crucial to the development of the novel: The narrator's life, like Styron's own, was saved because the bomb was dropped. "Had I been lucky or unlucky, depending on your point of view, to be, let's say, as little as six months older," he said, "I would probably have been, instead of at the edge of the action in Okinawa, in the action at Okinawa."
It is this "almost" aspect of Styron's personal history that ultimately seems to impede him in The Suicide Run. An exception is the book's longest piece, "My Father's House." In it, Marine lieutenant Paul Whitehurst has returned from the Pacific to his childhood home and is trying to find the discipline to become a writer, but he is dogged by the memory of waiting in the jungle of Saipan to be sent into a battle that never came. Styron makes his character's agonized anticipation, his fear of turning coward when thrust into the fray, palpable on the page. It is vintage Styron, written at the peak of his powers, using his imagination to make vivid the Pacific beaches and jungles that eluded the author himself. No wonder The New Yorker excerpted only the Pacific scenes from this longer piece and published them last year under the title, "Rat Beach," as a prelude to the book's publication.
Contrast this brilliant command of the page (written in midlife) with the first piece in the collection, "Blankenship," based on Styron's stint of duty at a naval prison on Harts Island in Long Island Sound. Written in 1953, this early piece is almost turgid with wordiness, but students of Styron's work will appreciate the opportunity to examine the maturing of his gifts through the five pieces.
Meanwhile, in Letters to My Father, longtime Styron scholar James L.W. West III gives readers a look at the preoccupations of the writer in his twenties--his high ambitions and equally deep insecurities. As an appendix to the letters, West reproduces six student pieces written at Duke and at the New School for Social Research in New York. Styron's avid mentors from those days—Duke professor William Blackburn, publisher Hiram Haydn, and his father, W.C. Styron Sr.—saw the young man's literary promise and pushed him to stretch beyond these apprentice stories to the longer form, which he would master at a level occupied by only a handful of twentieth-century American novelists. That he was spared a trip in uniform to the Pacific also spurred him on in those early years, as his letters attest.
Sadly Styron's final battleground—in the jungles of his own mind—would come later, long after the blinding light of Hiroshima had saved his life.
Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont