BOOKS: ‘The Suicide Run’

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THE SUICIDE RUN: FIVE TALES OF THE MARINE CORPS
By William Styron
Random House, $24, 195 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

William Styron may be gone, but his talent lives on. That he was a great writer is well known; also well known is that he suffered from depression (Churchill called it the Black Dog. In Styron’s case it was the Hound of Hell); but what is sometimes forgotten is that he was a Marine. And that is something a Marine never forgets. This slim volume serves to remind us that the time he spent in the Corps at the tail end of WWII and then again for some months during the Korean “Conflict,” were an important part of the many-chambered crucible in which his large talent was forged.

There are five stories of unequal length in “The Suicide Run,” all culled from published parts of unfinished novels or finished tales that had never been published. The first, “Blankenship,” is the oldest. Written in 1953, only a year after the 28-year-old Styron had been discharged from the Korean-War era Corps, it is an early example of his dichotomous attitude toward Marines of different stripes in particular and the military and its bellicose ways in general.

In the story, which is set in a stateside military prison, we meet, through an unnamed, omniscient narrator, warrant officer Charles R. Blankenship, a Marine we are meant to admire, if not fully understand. Although not a big man, and neither cruel nor angry, Blankenship, who is in charge of the blockhouse where the worst prisoners are kept, is treated by them with great “diffidence.” Why? The narrator suggests it’s because of his “erect military carriage,” or because he did not “display this strength with any of the swagger or parade which sets off the toy soldier from the sober professional.”

Instead Blankenship “wears pride in his uniform with an offhand confidence and conviction, like the suave self-assurance which often some very beautiful women, so long accustomed to stares and admiration, wear [their] beauty”.

When two men somehow manage to break out, Blankenship, a wounded combat vet, immediate moves with far more efficiency and speed than that of his superior officers, to begin the investigation and search. But the escapees are still at large when another matter requires Blankenship’s attention. Despite frequent warnings not to abuse any of the prisoners, one of Blankenship’s guards has hit a wise-cracking prisoner just above the eye with his Billy club.

Blankenship asks that the prisoner be brought to him, and there he meets a young Marine-gone-wrong he secretly admires but whose arrogance infuriates him. His subsequent acts reveal the author’s oft-expressed belief that war dehumanizes everyone — soldier, civilian, society.

“Marriott, the Marine,” the second story, is an explication of the unexpected joy a younger Marine officer feels when he encounters an older, combat-hardened officer whose love for and knowledge of literature is almost as great as his own. Seeing as Styron’s second tour in the Corps began just as his first big book was about to be published — to great pre-publication excitement — many of the details are straight out of his own life, down to the hurt he felt for years after the book’s first negative review.

On balance, it was not that harsh a critique, but Styron later admitted he carried a copy of the review in his wallet for decades. At the story’s end, the younger Marine comes to see that he and his cosmopolitan Marine office hero are not as similar as he had thought.

Like Blankenship” and “Marriott, the Marine,” “The Suicide Run,” tale number three and one of the shortest of the five, has been published before. Ironically, the suicide run of the story (which is also deeply autobiographical) has nothing to do with war. It’s an account of the near madness with which the narrator and his fellow officer buddy undertake weekend — Saturday afternoon to reveille on Monday morning — drives from their unnamed camp in North Carolina to Washington and then by train to New York City so as to spend brief but lusty hours with mistress and wife, respectively.

The last two tales, “My Father’s House” and “Elobey, Annobon, and Corisco,” were unpublished at the time this book was compiled (by whom the publisher does not tell us) but a portion of the former appeared in “The New Yorker” this past July 20th under the title “Rat Beach.”

While the first four tales were early writings, “Elobey, Annobon, and Corisco” was written later in Styron’s life (he died in 2006 at 81), and may be why I found it less enthralling than the others, that and the fact it is very short. In it, a soldier tries to dispel, or at least postpone, his fear of an upcoming battle by daydreaming about the far off but peaceful islands depicted on the stamps of his childhood collection.

“My Father’s House” is near-vintage Styron. Written in 1985, it was to be the beginning of an autobiographical novel about the difficulties a young Marine encounters on his return home after being discharged in 1946, a novel that was never finished. The action of the tale again closely reflects the author’s own life. He was born in the Tidewater area to a shipyard engineer father and an artistic mother from “up North,” both social and political liberals.

In the story, recently-discharged Marine Paul Whitehurst returns to live with his father and bought himself a million-dollar view … “and so I considered the fine expanse of water, sparkling in the sun or swept by rude squalls or echoing at night with mournful horns, to be one of the more amiable bonuses of my homecoming from the war.”

Another amiable bonus is the lovely young thing, all blond and unsullied, who lives next door with her preacher father, and whom Paul quickly summons up enough courage to call and ask for a date. She agrees, but says he’ll have to pick her up at church after choir practice at 7 p.m., an hour that, unfortunately, had not yet arrived when Styron let the story go.

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