Book review

Styron stories show flashes from the roaming novelist

By Eric Liebetrau
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2010

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The late William Styron produced epic, often controversial novels that ambitiously explored themes of family dysfunction, race, sexuality, and madness.

Styron’s critically acclaimed 1951 debut, “Lie Down in Darkness,’’ looks at a vulnerable young woman and her troubled Southern family. “The Confessions of Nat Turner’’ won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1968, but also triggered a sizable backlash for its portrayal of the aggressive sexuality of a black man directed toward a white woman. And 1979’s “Sophie’s Choice,’’ which won a National Book Award, followed the sufferings of a Nazi concentration camp survivor.

However, during his distinguished career Styron, who died in 2006 at 81, never fully embraced the short story. His first posthumous collection, “The Suicide Run,’’ which draws on the author’s experiences as a Marine in the latter stages of World War II, shows an author working through the conventions of the form.

Punctuated with flashes of brilliance, many of the five pieces, written over a period of decades, beg to be developed more fully. In fact, the publisher notes that at least two of the vignettes were fragments from unfinished novels, an acknowledgement made apparent in their thematic depth and richness of character development.

“Blankenship’’ (1953) focuses on a warrant officer in charge of a military prison. Charles Blankenship, who “gave the impression of cool coordinated strength,’’ struggles to maintain discipline among the “yardbirds,’’ especially when a particularly indignant new prisoner arrives. Despite an abundance of military cliches, Styron neatly delineates the tension between the officer’s need for decorum and his desire to unleash his barely concealed rage at any insubordination.

Another frustrated soldier narrates the longer piece, “Marriott, the Marine’’ (1971). Called back to service on the eve of his first novel’s publication, the narrator laments the rigidity of life on the military base, longing to take up a Bohemian existence in Greenwich Village.

Soon he meets Paul Marriott, a fellow soldier inclined to classic literature, and is struck with “boozy wonderment of . . . a man of formidable experience who had managed to find in the muted and lilac-scented province of nineteenth-century France harmonies that were compatible with a career in the deafening, bloody universe of modern warfare.’’ He’s ultimately disappointed when Marriott is revealed as just another dutiful, toe-the-line functionary.

The same narrator chronicles “The Suicide Run,’’ (1974) a fast-paced, amusing depiction of the military’s forced repression of sexuality and its effects on the discipline and tactical execution of the soldiers. As he and his buddy embark on yet another brief weekend trek from their Tidewater, Va., base to New York to visit their mistresses, the narrator wryly reflects on their trip: “Certainly enforced sexual famine is one of the most important keys to an understanding of the genius of the military mystique: cause a soldier to ache with such longing for the odor of a woman’s flesh that it becomes an insupportable rage, and you will have often created a man who will grab a bayonet and coolly eviscerate Aggressor Enemy.’’

The first part of an unfinished novel about the author’s experiences in summer 1946, “My Father’s House’’ (1985) is the most well-developed of the pieces. Home from Korea, a young Marine lazily floats around the house, remembering the oppressive heat, insects, boredom, sexual frustration, and crippling fear that characterized his time in the service.

As in the previous stories, Styron deploys a protagonist with a decidedly literary mind. He argues constantly with his straitlaced stepmother, while quietly absorbing excerpts of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima’’ in the New Yorker magazine. His emotional, compassionate response to the horrific stories offers a fitting encapsulation of the shared worldview of Styron’s characters, who deflect focus from the on-the-ground violence of warfare but stress the equally soul-crushing effects of ennui and having to conform.

Clearly Styron’s preferred form was the novel, but the stories in “The Suicide Run’’ provide a respectable, if occasionally fragmented, cap on the author’s deservedly celebrated oeuvre.

Eric Liebetrau is a freelance editor and writer.

THE SUICIDE RUN: Five Tales of the Marine Corps By William Styron

Random House, 208 pp., $24