READING REVIEWS OF the new edition of William Styron's letters reminded me that I had never read any of his books, even though he was a heavy hitter when I was young--a Rome Prize for Lie Down in Darkness, a Pulitzer for Confessions of Nat Turner, and a National Book Award for Sophie's Choice, which also found a spot on that Modern Library list of the best novels of the 20th century. While I was in graduate school, more or less ignoring contemporary literature as I got through seminars on Piers Plowman and Herman Melville, just about everyone I knew who was not in grad school read Sophie's Choice.
Yet I never picked up a Styron novel. He just wasn't a writer you were expected, in my grad-school milieu, to have read. Mailer, Updike, Roth, sure, maybe Cheever... but Styron was in that big box of writers who were well-established but somehow not obligatory, if you were my age: John Marquand, Erskine Caldwell, James Gould Cozzens, James Jones, writers well-represented in the used book stores I haunted, but whom I ignored in my quests for Ford Madox Ford, Don DeLillo, Henry Green, Paul Bowles, and the like.
So...I decided I should read some of Styron's fiction, at long last, and went with this novella, first published in 1952.
Lt. Culver (our POV character) is a WW II vet, now in the reserves, and is called up for a stint in South Carolina, as is Capt. Mannix, whom he befriends. Being a few years out of active service and having settled into satisfying lives, both are annoyed and resentful at being back under military discipline. Col.Templeton, sensing that the reserves need to be shown who is boss, orders an overnight 36-mile forced march. Mannix publicly objects, but rather than decline the gambit and risk being designated a wuss (though he is a veteran of Peleliu, one of the most terrible battles in the Pacific theater of the last war), he pushes himself and his unit through every god-damned mile of the march, nearly crippling himself in the process.
The story rang true. That men will try to meet, even surpass, expectations set by authorities they despise, just to show that they can do it--that's true enough. That we will go further to prove things to people we hate than we would ever go for people we love--sadly, also true.
Styron's prose was something of a long march itself, though, for me. I'm guessing his generation was still in thrall to Thomas Wolfe (speaking of the no-longer-much-read) and Wolfe's creakily stilted, down-filled prose:
Freezing marsh and grass instead of wood beneath his feet, the preposterous cold in the midst of summer, Mannix's huge distorted shadow cast brutishly against the impermeable walls by a lantern so sinister that its raging noise had the sound of a typhoon at sea--all these, just for an instant, did indeed contrive to make him feel as if they were adrift at sea in a dazzling, windowless box, ignorant of direction or of any points of the globe, and with no way of telling.
Just when you are wondering how a shadow can be cast brutishly, or why the impermeability of walls needs pointing out, you meet that noisy and apparently enraged lamp. If you decide to leave those questions in abeyance, you get to wonder how a windowless box can contain so much light that it dazzles.
It's the pile-up of modifiers that's causing most of the problem, I think: preposterous, huge, distorted, brutishly, impermeable, raging, dazzling. And they haven't even begun the march yet, which is when Styron pulls out the stops, and every noun gets its adjective, or possibly two, and at full sail three:
a persistent, unwhipped, scornful look in his eyes
high, throaty, lilting mockery
Of course, for all we know, our own models of excellence in fictional prose will look just as fussily antique in fifty or sixty years time. But I think The Long March is going to do it for me so far as Styron goes. Think I'll get to that most recent Alan Hollinghurst--now that guy can write.