September 9, 2012
One thing I did while not watching the political conventions was to read a fine book by William Styron, a collection of three long, semiautobiographical stories called A Tidewater Morning. Though I read other major books of his long ago, I have little memory of their details—likely a result of my failings rather than his. Maybe the controversial nature of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice overshadowed the actual books, or perhaps it was Meryl Streep in the movie role of Sophie. Or maybe I had to grow sufficiently old and disillusioned to appreciate Styron’s unique blend of realism, strong convictions and subtle romanticism. It also helped that, when I picked up A Tidewater Morning, I had just returned from a Tidewater vacation at a place I affectionately call Mosquitoland USA.
In this collection Styron builds riveting stories on minimal plots. The style mixes the relaxed, leisurely, cultured tone of a Virginia gentleman with postwar explicitness:
Mr. Dabney—at this time, I imagine he was in his forties—was a runty, hyperactive entrepreneur with a sourly intense, purse-lipped, preoccupied air and a sometimes rampaging temper. He also had a ridiculously foul mouth, from which I learned my first dirty words.… His blasphemies and obscenities, far from scaring me, caused me to shiver with their splendor. I practiced his words in secret, deriving from their amalgamated filth what, in a dim pediatric way, I could perceive was erotic inflammation: “Son of a bitch whorehouse bat shit Jesus Christ pisspot asshole!” I would screech into an empty closet, and feel my little ten-year-old pecker rise.
Amalgamated filth—what a phrase! Styron achieves a light, detached irony that doesn’t preclude empathy with his characters. In the story quoted above, “Shadrach,” a superannuated black man trudges from the Deep South with the goal of dying on what is left of the Dabney estate, where he was once a slave. Here is Styron’s description of the reaction by the present Dabney patriarch, whose main line is bootlegging:
Mr. Dabney was by no means an ill-spirited or ungenerous man (despite his runaway temper), but was a soul nonetheless beset by many woes in the dingy threadbare year 1935, being hard pressed not merely for dollars but for dimes and quarters, crushed beneath an elephantine and inebriate wife, along with three generally shiftless sons and two knocked-up daughters, plus two more likely to be so, and living with the abiding threat of revenue agents swooping down to terminate his livelihood and, perhaps, get him sent to the Atlanta penitentiary for five or six years. He needed no more cares or burdens, and now in the hot katydid-shrill hours of summer night I saw him gaze down at the leathery old dying black face with an expression that mingled compassion and bewilderment and stoppered-up rage and desperation, and then whisper to himself: “He wants to die on Dabney ground! Well, kiss my ass, just kiss my ass!”
The way Styron has suddenly returned to my consciousness, I feel a bit of Mr. Dabney’s astonishment.