‘The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps’ by William Styron
The Suicide Run
Five Tales of the Marine Corps
Random House: 198 pp., $24
The business -- and I use the word advisedly -- of posthumous publication is a troubling one. We honor our dear dead. Yet there are certain kinds of attention it seems wiser not to pay; those who profit from the legacy of the prose of Ernest Hemingway have been ill-advised, I think, to produce so many volumes of what he left unfinished or rejected while alive. The bank account enlarges, but the reputation shrinks. Soon the son of Vladimir Nabokov -- that most fastidious of authors -- is scheduled to produce a text his father had enjoined.
And now we have William Styron, dead in 2006, with a slim volume of stories he did not see into print. The publisher suggests this is “perhaps the last fiction we will publish by one of the greatest writers of his generation,” hinting there may be more. Harrowingly, in his memoir “Darkness Visible,” Styron wrote about self-doubt and panic, paralysis and depression; would he have been pleased to see this book appear?
It’s a complicated question and best treated case by case. We as readers must be grateful that Max Brod, Franz Kafka’s friend, disobeyed his order that the prose be burned. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Giuseppe di Lampedusa published next to nothing while alive; the posthumously published work endures. “The Last Tycoon” by F. Scott Fitzgerald was cut short by his heart attack, yet the surviving fragment is an important one. The catalog of books by John Updike, dead this January, has been enlarged, but both “Endpoint” and “My Father’s Tears” were ready to be read. And these are just the iceberg’s tip; without his fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, we’d not possess the folio of William Shakespeare’s plays. They were collected and first printed some eight years after his death.
The publication history of Styron’s “The Suicide Run” is another thing entirely and difficult to parse. It’s useful here to reproduce the second paragraph of the brief publisher’s note:
“ ‘Blankenship,’ written during the summer of 1953, was first published in the journal Papers on Language and Literature in a special issue (Autumn 1987) devoted to Styron’s work. ‘Marriott, the Marine’ and ‘The Suicide Run’ were composed in the early 1970s as parts of ‘The Way of the Warrior,’ a novel that Styron put aside to write ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (1979). ‘Marriott’ was published in the September 1971 issue of Esquire; ‘The Suicide Run’ appeared in the American Poetry Review for May-June 1974. ‘My Father’s House’ is the opening section of an unpublished novel, begun in 1985, that Styron intended to base on his experiences during the spring and summer of 1946, just after he had been discharged from the Marine Corps. . . . The vignette ‘Elobey, Annobón, and Corisco,’ previously unpublished, was composed in 1995.”
The linkage of these fragments is made manifest by the book’s subtitle: “Five Tales of the Marine Corps.” They offer Styron’s vision (not unlike that of Norman Mailer or James Jones) of the military life. Only in “The Confessions of Nat Turner” did this author truly throw his voice, writing of a period and in an accent not his own. More characteristically, as in “Lie Down in Darkness,” “Set This House on Fire” and “Sophie’s Choice,” he melded personal experience with researched invention, and it’s not perhaps surprising that his stint as a young soldier took repeated fictive form.
The idea of personal combat and the ideal of the gentleman warrior were never far from Styron’s consciousness; as early as his second novel, “The Long March,” he was writing about war. As he puts it at the start of this collection’s title story: “I must make a small confession. Despite my aversion to military things, there are aspects of the life that I have found tolerable -- fascinating even, though inferior to chess or Scarlatti.” And in the opening paragraph of “Marriott, the Marine,” its author asserts: “Basically, I am an unaggressive, even pacific type, civilian to the marrow, and the very idea of military life sets up a doleful music in my brain -- no fifes, no pipes, no gallant trumpet calls, only a slow gray dirge of muffled drums.”
The stories are arranged in chronological sequence, spanning more than 40 years. The first, “Blankenship,” begins in the omniscient authorial mode and continues in third person, told over-the-shoulder of a career Marine who deals, in the course of a day, with a blockhouse escape, an encounter with his commanding officer and then with an insubordinate prisoner who challenges his certainty that discipline makes sense. The last vignette, “Elobey, Annobón, and Corisco,” is a piercing if brief rumination on fear -- wherein the author tries to calm himself before battle by remembering a stamp collection and his dreams of far-away places (minus the danger) when young. First-person retrospect is the narrative vantage for the bulk of the collection; Styron may adjust a date and place, yet these are recognizably personal pieces about a life once lived.
He writes about the stuff of war with his meticulous eloquence, his habitually sonorous prose and mythopoeic bent. Fear and the rush of bravery take stage center here. The style of these stories is, however, more notable than their substance, and it carries risks. At times the language seems too formal for its occasion: “ ‘Just get him out of there,’ I retorted, feeling an alarming coronary turbulence as I strove to control my rage.” At times the young writer grows grandiloquent, as if still channeling Faulkner with such jaw-cracking formulations as: “. . . I was gripped by a foreboding about our presence in this swampy wilderness that at once transcended and made absurd each of our individual destinies, and even our collective fate.”
In the rare moments when he introduces women, he does so with coy lewdness: “That Laurel is a thoroughgoing adept in bed has already been made clear. She also commands a huskily vocal, hortatory, descriptive style that I find compatible with my own inclination -- though I certainly need no inducement to boost a flagging appetite.” But mostly Styron writes with calm assurance, an eye for telling detail and an ear for dialogue; the world is seen, heard, shown.
In the longest of these stories, “Marriott, the Marine” and “My Father’s House” (recently excerpted in the New Yorker), he’s unabashedly literary. Lt. Col. Marriott discusses Gustave Flaubert and his biographer Francis Steegmuller; we are treated to a reprint of an early review of Styron’s first novel; he refers to Bellow, Malamud and others. And in the memoir-like “My Father’s House,” in which he calls himself Paul Whitehurst, there’s a ruminative knowingness that Styron made his own. Here too he writes about young manhood, artistic ambition and a not-so-buried racism in the South; “a doleful music” and the “slow gray dirge of muffled drums” beat in the language throughout.
On balance one can understand why he abandoned “The Way of the Warrior” in favor of “Sophie’s Choice” and left the last two texts unpublished. He was a first-rate writer and a much-honored one. Among his laurels were the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the Howells Medal and the Légion d’Honneur. But among William Styron’s principal achievements will not be “The Suicide Run.”
Delbanco is the Robert Frost distinguished university professor of English language and literature at the University of Michigan. His recent works include the novel “The Count of Concord” and the essay collection “Anywhere Out of the World.”
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