Memorial Day

by Kelvin Smith

I’m reading a collection of short stories by William Styron, and I am much enjoying the confident American style that doesn’t fear long sentences and the creative variety of precise punctuation that impresses as it soothes; reading such narratives requires a concentration, but it is a concentration given willingly and – the author must have worked so hard on this – with joy and gratitude to a master just entering his prime.

The stories arise from Styron’s time in the US Marine Corps, both in the later period of war against Japan and on his recall during the Korean War. They are, I suppose, male in orientation, and as the Publisher’s Note says – not many books would have such a postscript in these days when the publisher is more disregarded than held in high regard – ‘they present a complex picture of military life – its hardships, deprivations, and stupidities; its esprit, camaraderie, and seductive allure’. I am glad to have read this work.

I notice that the story after which the collection is named, The Suicide Run, was first published in American Poetry Review in May/June1974. It must have been about this time that I visited Styron’s house in Roxbury and I have kept a few vivid memories of that time – one of those moist warm evenings which can come to New England in the days after Memorial Day – just a few months after I moved to live in New York City.

I was staying with friends in Connecticut, in Bethel, and had come to Roxbury and this house to visit another friend who was housesitting. We stayed for a few hours, enjoyed some of the Styron’s drink, lounged around, talked and laughed, and looked at books in the bookshelves. Being young and hungry we were soon in the kitchen and no doubt food was found and consumed, but that is only a vague memory. What stays in my mind from that visit was the wall-mounted telephone near the door and the list of telephone numbers, hand-written on a sheet of cardboard that was taped roughly to the scullery wall. The names and numbers were in different ballpoint ink, pencil and pen; there were crossings-out and addings-to – the way we all kept track of numbers before computers, smartphones, and even before the Filofax.

On this list there were about fifty names and many of them were recognisable – there were several Kennedys, Mailer, Capote, Bacall, and, the one that still thrills me, Sinatra. This very brief and distant exposure to the interconnected American clique of politics, literature and show business was never to be repeated. I never met Bill Styron and, until this week, never read any of his writing; but that doesn’t mean the writer – and what we might today call his contact list – haven’t been in my mind for all the intervening years. Bill Styron, Betty Bacall, Frank Sinatra. Who could forget that?