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A Virginia Boyhood : A TIDEWATER MORNING <i> By William Styron (Random House: $17; 142 pp.) </i>

The three stories of William Styron’s “A Tidewater Morning” were published separately over nine years in Esquire Magazine; the first appearing in 1978, the last in 1987. Perhaps only now, collected in a single volume, can we see how rich and remarkable they are.

Styron has not published much since “Sophie’s Choice” 14 years ago. There was a collection of essays, and a brief, lucid account of an episode of clinical depression. To revive three old short stories might be taken as a minor tidying on behalf of a remarkable but never prolific writer. In fact, read together, the “Tidewater” stories stand as one of Styron’s finest works.

Two tell of events in the life of a boy named Paul Cartwright, one when he is 10, the other when he is 13; and both set in a small town in Virginia’s flat tidewater country. In the third, Paul is 20, a lieutenant serving in the Pacific in World War II. Together they do not make a novel--they are variations on a set of themes--yet they have a compelling unity. All three take a young sensibility, portrayed in winning individual detail, through a series of large happenings: the history of the South, the meaning of war, his mother’s death.

They are autobiographical in part; Styron calls them “an imaginative reshaping of real events . . . linked by a chain of memories.” The reshaping is consummate and seamless, as if real events were the nymph stage in a life cycle whose adult form was fictional imagination.

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We live historically and don’t perceive it. The spirit of the day enlists us completely; why, then, the restlessness, the recurrent bad dreams, the burnout? The long past has its part in us, pronouncing a continual inaudible judgment. Styron, sonorous and patrician--each story has, at some signifying moment, a great layered and stunningly articulated sentence--makes the judgment audible.

He does it most explicitly in “Love Day.” Paul is a Marine lieutenant in the flotilla that is to land on Okinawa. He has grown out of a weedy and introspective childhood--more of that later--to become lean, fit and avid to prove himself. He and another gung-ho lieutenant pick up a rumor that their unit will not actually make the landing. They seek out their colonel--winner of the Navy Cross, an authentic hero, the supreme warrior--for consolation. He plies them with Bourbon, and recounts anecdotes of his younger days in the Marines. He is their idol; he is also dumb, and his stories meander, repeat and grow increasingly crude.

Fuddled by the whiskey, Paul drifts into a memory of a grueling midsummer car trip with his parents. The car breaks down, they chafe and bicker, and the tension mounts. His father, a ship designer at the Virginia naval works, can’t repair a simple engine. His frustration and his wife’s querulousness mask larger sorrows. She has cancer, and they all know it. And the father, a touchy, thoughtful man who is proud of the new aircraft carrier he has helped design, detests it at the same time.

He breaks into a bitter jeremiad. Every war in American history has claimed one of their forebears; another war is coming. His bleak vehemence reduces his wife to tears. Now, six years later, Paul is frozen into the memory of his parents’ double impacted misery. His father had “allowed a meditation on war to flow to the edge of an unspoken thought--a prophecy concerning his only son and heir.” In his cabin, the colonel maunders on but the warrior bond has begun to loosen.

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The ending has a touch of contrivance. There is none, though, in the other two stories. The title piece is set in Paul’s home, perhaps a few months after the car trip. Much of its detail is devoted to the 13-year-old’s struggle with Quigley, the mean-spirited store-keeper for whom he delivers papers at $2.50 a week. Back in the dingy store after two hours in the blazing sun, Paul will fish out an occasional soda from the scummy water in the cooler. Each one is meticulously noted, and by week’s end Paul gets no more than a dollar or so. Quigley never treats; never once “did he show the preferential decency, at least, that a child is supposed to receive.”

The foreground is a scrim, so beautifully fashioned that it is, in a way, what the story is about. Quigley’s grubby store, with the shipyard workers sitting in the back room, is a world. But history moves behind it: the Depression that for years cankered the owner’s spirit; the new prewar construction boom that revives the business but not the man.

But what mainly moves through the story, and takes it over at the end, is the last days of Paul’s mother. As in Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” looming tragedy is the dust that settles on everything. Paul has a perpetual stomach ache; at night he covers his head with a pillow to blot out his mother’s sudden shrieks of pain, and the gentle murmuring of his sleepless father and the nurse. Through the agony there is a quiet reprise of the past: the loving and combative marriage, and the musical career that Paul’s mother began--there is an inscribed photograph of Gustav Mahler--and never finished. She would sing, though, for herself, her husband and the neighbors.

“Shadrach” is an enchanting raft of a story set on the somber river of Southern history. A poor white family undertakes a curious duty for a dying black man, born before the Civil War, who was once a slave on the plantation that the family’s ancestors owned.

Paul is 10, a witness, and touched more lightly than in the other stories. His neighbors are the Dabneys, derelict and disreputable, with four blowzy daughters and three sons--Big Mole, Middle Mole and Little Mole Dabney--who never wash. Vernon, the father, whose own father’s alcoholism and drift dropped him off the lofty Dabney family tree--scrounges and bootlegs for a living. He is spectacularly foul-mouthed, hard-pressed and narrow-minded, yet with an underlay of decency.

Shadrach, in his 90s, appears on a hot summer day, dressed in a three-piece mohair suit. He collapses in the Dabney’s yard moaning for water; Dabney runs a hose into his mouth, followed by a shot of moonshine, followed by three cantaloupes, Rice Krispies and corn bread with lard. Shadrach is starving. His children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are dead or gone; he has walked 600 miles from Alabama to die and be buried on “Dabney land.”

It is three generations since there were planters who were supposed to take care of their slaves, and slaves who counted on it. Suddenly, swearing and furious, Dabney reverts to an ancestral role. All the Dabneys crowd into the broken-down car and load Shadrach in with them. “Rapt in his guardian misery,” Dabney drives up into the hills to the dilapidated cabin and overgrown land that was once a plantation and which he now uses for moonshining.

What follows makes a comic and touching story, marked by some of the most magical writing that Styron has ever done. Only gradually do we become aware of its intelligence and powerful anger. The beauty and humanity of the Southern tradition are evoked vividly; yet a terrible irony is at work. Shadrach’s trust in feudal duty and loyalty, and Vernon’s reluctant assumption of them, founder on the awful fact of betrayal: Shadrach was sold. And when Vernon rages at the end, he is raging at a double, if vastly unequal betrayal. For him and other poor whites struggling through the Depression of the ‘30s, the Southern legend was also a mockery.

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