"If one wishes to know William Styron, one must walk with him," this biography teasingly begins. Great expectation! Will readers come to know Styron through conversations, reminiscences, and literary gossip as we "walk" with West and Styron? All we'll come to know, through the daily walks, are the "facts" of Styron's two retrievers (a matronly golden and a rambunctious young Labrador) and their geography. From October to June, they walk in Roxbury, Connecticut; from June to September, on Martha's Vineyard. "If one has taken these walks over many years and has listened to these talks ... one knows that Styron will have revealed very little about himself in what he has said," West seems to say with a sigh at the end of his preamble.
It is in the work, alleges West, that Styron the man is most revealed. And in the exegesis of Styron's novels lies the strength of this biography. West's gifts come to light when he assumes the role of literary detective. His reconstruction of the gestation and birth pains of Styron's great novels shows an interest sparked by the questions of literary form and content. With these discussions the biography crisply snaps together.
Meanwhile, the chronology remains the armature. West marches Styron's ancestors steadily toward the moment of Styron's birth in Newport News, Virginia, picking dutifully through the detritus. Reader interest is piqued when Styron's parents are summoned from the wings--particularly with the entrance of Pauline Abraham, Styron's talented mother (a musician who studied in Vienna and would prove herself to be a fiercely adventurous young woman in pre-World War I America). A minutely detailed history of Newport News, Virginia, where Styron was born and raised in the years following World War I, reveals his recurring thematic interests--racial segregation and the "unknowable" culture of black Americans.
It is Styron's New York City years that makes for compelling reading. While enrolled in the New School for Social Research, for example, and mentored by Hiram Haydn, Styron teetered, at 22, on the brink of his literary career. The angst of the young author struggling through issues of writer's block, financial stress, and the problems peculiar to the work that would become Lie Down in Darkness will amaze, perhaps reassure, aspiring writers. Such would not be forgiven today, for Styron's career flourished in that completely unprecedented era where the publishing world existed to serve and nourish new talent, free of today's marketplace concerns with bestsellers, blockbusters, and the bottom line. Read, and bid a grave farewell to our gone and golden literary era.
West has little new to add about the recent years (Styron was 72 with the publication of this biography). Styron's later life has been made so public with the hugely successful Darkness Visible (1990), which did much to validate the experiences of those who suffer from depression. West's treatment of Styron's notorious depression is candid, but in the end, lacks depth. The reiteration of a near fatal depression triggered by a carelessly prescribed series of sedatives is instructive, but West passes up an opportunity to discuss the role Styron's alcohol dependency played.
We might have been spared the obligatory nod to Styron's ancestry; the comments on little Billy's boyhood (so he had pretty brown eyes, so he had chicken pox and verbal precocity), those tiresome details that strain for significance. We don't need to know about Styron's first grade experiences in order to appreciate the mind behind Sophie's Choice. A rather flat coda disappointingly concludes this 450 page account of the rich--in work and love--and complicated life of an American master. --Hollis Giammetteo
From Publishers Weekly
Often thwarted by writer's block despite his literary successes, Styron had his most fortunate failure, West notes, when, late in 1985, the novelist, in deep depression worsened by dependency on the tranquilizer Halcion, tried to compose a suicide note. "He wanted to write a document of eloquence and dignity, but... [i]n extremis, words had failed him." Although West's biography (his first) begins so worshipfully as to be off-putting and continues with a largely irrelevant genealogy going back to the Viking warrior Styr the Strong in A.D. 700, the workmanlike, low-key narrative proceeds then to evoke the author of Lie Down in Darkness, Set This House on Fire, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice and, more recently, Darkness Visible. In the postwar generation in which he was first seen as a Southern gothic inheritor of Faulkner, Styron (b. 1924) emerged as an original, residing well north of the Mason-Dixon line and becoming best known for the striking Holocaust novel Sophie's Choice, in which the heroine is, paradoxically, Polish and Catholic, and no scene is set inside the death camps. For the texture of Styron's life and the sources of his characters and situations, West, Distinguished Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, is authoritative. However, he is sometimes less assured when he strays, alleging, for example, that the workaholic Anthony Trollope wrote only one hour a day; misplacing Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement in both time and country; and labeling U.S. (and U.K.) involvement in the Korean War (in which Styron was recalled to duty) "immoral." Authorized lives of living subjects are delicate challenges, but West brings off his biography well, covering events from Styron's unpromising beginnings to literary elder statesman attempting to cope with his fame. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.