The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps

By William Styron

Reviewed by Judy Garrison

Sophie’s Choice was a remarkable and profoundly rendered tale, but one that went on, to my mind, too protractedly. So I was surprised at the prose in The Suicide Run:  tight and evocative, poetic even.  I had borrowed the book from our library for the man in my life; the subject matter in this collection of stories, after all, was the Marine Corps during wartime. I decided to read a few pages before handing it off and the quality of the writing immediately hooked me.  I can sincerely recommend this book to men and women alike (let’s not pretend there is no gender divide in our reading preferences!)Picture12

William Styron (1925-2006) is most known for Lie Down in Darkness (1951), his first novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in that year, and Sophie’s Choice (1979) which won the American Book Award, as well as for the memoir of his fall into the well of clinical depression, Darkness Visible, which, perhaps because of his generously confiding tone and excellent writing is, strangely, a pleasure to read. In The Suicide Run, stories composed over decades, he is writing fiction, certainly, but fiction that draws deeply on his own experiences in the military during both World War II and the Korean War.

Here he is describing the main character in “Blankenship,” written in 1953, based on his own stint as a guard at a stateside military prison at the end of World War II:

“His bearing, rather, was that of a man who has long ago out-grown any callow tendency to strut (had he ever possessed any at all) and wears pride in his uniform with an offhand confidence and conviction, like the suave self-assurance with which often some very beautiful woman, so long accustomed to stares and admiration, wears her beauty.”

We are told how the guard, aroused from sleep to hear the word “escape,” is galvanized by the prospect of having the opportunity to use his talents:

“He’d felt it before, this cold excitement involving something to which he could hardly assign a name – challenge, perhaps, or summons to duty – at any rate a quickening of his senses so clamorous and memorable that in long periods when it was not there he’d found himself waiting for it, waiting for the crisis with the tranquil, fierce patience of a communicant awaiting the moment of passion, or a hunter in the marsh watching the final defenseless swoop of birds….”

How does a Marine, post war, cope? Paul Whitehurst, the narrator of My Father’s House and surely a stand-in for Styron, is a Marine who survived duty in the South Pacific.  He knows that he must become a writer.  He describes his afternoon of therapeutic guzzling of four or five beers (after 4 hours of intensive writing) at the Palace Café, to ease “the racking misery of my time in the Pacific.  That time was never entirely absent from my thoughts, creating a constant gripe in my psyche like a throbbing gut;  the effect of a few swallows of the good suds was as analgesic as a shot of morphine.  It was what the rustic folk of the Tidewater called a “High lonesome,” this daily bender of mine.  It was a gentle, civilized bender, solitary, introspective, mildly (not manically) euphoric, and always cut short before the onset of confusion or incoherence.”

Styron is even more persuasive when describing a soldier’s dread fear when facing combat.  In My Father’s House, the most intimate and fully realized of the stories, the narrator muses at one point, “Would I avoid the worst like these guys or would I, when I finally stumbled ashore on the Japanese mainland, be immolated in one foul form or another, consumed by fire or rent apart by steel or crushed like a snail?”  The narrator in Elobey, Annobon, and Corisco, headed to participate in a possible invasion of Japan reflects, “I was scared nearly to death.  While previously Okinawa had been an exciting place to dream about, an island where I would exploit my potential for bravery, now the idea of going back there nearly sickened me.  Thus I found myself in a conflict I had never anticipated:  afraid of going into battle, yet even more afraid of betraying my fear, which would be an ugly prelude to the most harrowing fear of all—that when forced to the test in combat I would demonstrate my absolute terror, fall apart, and fail my fellow Marines. These intricately intertwined fears began to torment me without letup.”

This is how I, a woman, always imagined I would feel if headed into a dangerous battle, and marveled that soldiers didn’t seem to experience that stew of apprehension, the only authentic, though psychologically perilous, human response I could envision a soldier having. [The Americanization of Emily, 1964, is the only war movie I can think of that ever dealt respectfully with that fear.] Of course, many of them must, but do not and cannot speak of it.  I’m glad that Styron did.~