Short fiction from a Southern master of the sweeping, ambitiously themed, epic novel.
Styron (Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays, 2008, etc.) didn’t bother much with short stories, and most of the work here doesn’t really fit that rubric. In fact, the publisher’s note explains that three of these five pieces are fragments from novels that he set aside before his death in 2006. Even “Blankenship,” which adheres the most closely to short-story convention, contains descriptive passages that suggest a longer project. Yet while Styron’s most celebrated novels (Sophie’s Choice, 1979; The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1967) feature protagonists who by gender or race are obviously not him, the first-person narrator of much of the work here could pass as an authorial stand-in: a literary-minded young Marine, in the thrall of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, who attempts to balance military values with his own. The pieces are arranged chronologically by the dates they were written, rather than when they are set, so we can observe the author’s development from the overblown clichés of “Blankenship” (1953), with dialogue straight out of a military prison flick, to the character development and depth of “Marriott, the Marine” (1971) and the exploration of the moral ambiguities of sex and race in “My Father’s House” (1985). The closing snippet, “Elobey, Annobón, and Corisco” (1995) provides the thematic coda: “I found myself in a conflict I had never anticipated: afraid of going into battle, yet even more afraid of betraying my fear, which would be an ugly prelude to the most harrowing fear of all—that when forced to the test in combat I would demonstrate my absolute terror, fall apart, and fail my fellow marines.” Taken as a whole, these fragments illuminate their author’s obsessions and make the reader wish Styron had completed at least two more novels.
Essential reading for the writer’s fans; a revelatory footnote for others.