“Reading My Father”
By Alexandra Styron. Scribner, 256 pages.
Not so long ago, William Styron was an esteemed heavyweight of American literature. Though he was not prolific, producing only four novels in a 50-year career, he stood in the company of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and John Cheever as a chronicler of American experience. A Virginia boy who resettled himself among the East Coast literary establishment, he is best known for his controversial account of a rebel slave in “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and for the Pulitzer Prize-winning blockbuster “Sophie’s Choice,” about a Holocaust survivor in Brooklyn.
Now Styron’s youngest child, Alexandra, has penned “Reading My Father,” a searing profile of this once-iconic author whose towering ambition seems to have been his undoing, his bedeviling aspirations unleashing violent tempests upon his family.
The act of writing, recalls Styron, who is in her 40s, “was at the center of our family’s existence, playing like a constant drumbeat under everything we did.” William Styron intended for every novel to be a “big book,” exploring grand themes, and the pressure of its making took a toll on the hard-drinking, often irascible writer. In telling this gripping tale of her father’s life, wracked by depression, Alexandra exposes the hubris of white male writers of his generation, their macho posturing now a piece of postwar history.
Each of her father’s sprawling manuscripts demanded years of labor, as he amassed research and fashioned it into a polished story handwritten on yellow legal pads. “He was suffering under the weight of his own expectations, and the deathly pace was just dragging him down deeper,” she writes about her father’s attempt at his first novel.
It is an observation that could hang over his entire working life. Because he wrote at home, in a cottage on the family compound in rural Roxbury, Connecticut, the household was not spared the anxiety and grief of his creative process. And it’s in her recollections of life as the baby of this privileged but emotionally chaotic and neglectful family that her memoir shines brightest.
Her mother Rose, a well-regarded figure in the elite literary circle the Styrons dominated in the 1970s, flees her husband’s dark moods by traveling or championing political causes in New York City. With her older siblings away at boarding school and later college, little Alexandra, with her messy hair and addiction to television, is frequently Daddy’s only companion at home. He stomps in and out of the house, oblivious to her constant TV watching, until suddenly, on occasion, he takes notice, raging at her as an imbecile. Or, equally suddenly, he erupts into a fit about the junk she eats, heaving all her sugary cereals into the garbage. As entertainment, he regales the child with stories about fatal car crashes and crazed killers. In hindsight, she decides that he meant to teach her about moral courage. To the reader, it just sounds like a frustrated adult trying to shock an innocent child.
The domestic drama isn’t without its oddly loving moments. Alexandra, affectionately nicknamed “Albert” by her father, happily acts as his personal sommelier, scampering down to the basement for a bottle of wine for the adults to enjoy and expertly uncorking it. Still, by the time she’s a teenager, she is fed up with the “crazy-town scene” she’s been brought up in. When a clerical mistake prevents her from boarding at her private school, she’s devastated that she has to continue living at home. She is admirably frank and unsentimental about her adolescent pain, recalling that “the discord of my parents’ relationship was so epic at that point, I shut down from them with near-autistic fierceness.”
Yet, as a fair-minded narrator, she is quick to remember that they also led a charmed life, blessed with the glamour her father’s fame brought. There were Christmas parties with Leonard Bernstein at the piano, the holiday celebrated with more gusto by Alexandra’s assimilated Jewish mother than her cantankerous WASP father, and honeyed summers among famous friends at their home on Martha’s Vineyard, where Teddy Kennedy might climb over a seawall into the yard.
But the trappings of the good life can’t save the distressed novelist’s psyche, and Styron theorizes that her father had “an inevitable date with madness.” Following his first psychotic breakdown at age 60, he wrote an account of his illness and recovery, “Darkness Visible,” that generated great attention. His second and final mental collapse comes 15 years later. By then Styron had been struggling for nearly two decades with a novel about World War II, called “The Way of the Warrior,” for which his daughter remembers he had tremendous hopes.
After her father’s death in 2006, Alexandra examines the incomplete manuscript. In the rare book library at Duke University, Styron’s alma mater, where his papers are deposited, she finds a catastrophic mess of pages. Various inconclusive versions of the story, a jumble of fragments, fill numerous folders. Even the pages that are numbered and can be put in sequential order don’t seem to flow logically. (It brings to my mind the behemoth, rambling novel about the Internal Revenue Service that David Foster Wallace labored on for a decade before killing himself.)
Though shaken by the evidence of her father’s shattered effort, she seems able to numb the horror with a bit of scathing humor. She calls her older sister about the discovery of the incoherent manuscript and says, “It’s like ‘A Beautiful Mind’ in there.” Humor is the one quality, she says, that she and her father shared. It’s probably what allows her to look at his pathos with a hard-eyed clarity.
Alexandra Styron will speak at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 7, at Ivy Hall, 179 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Atlanta.