A Tidewater Morning, by William Styron

I hadn't read anything of Styron's since Sophie's Choice but picked this up because I was spending a week in the Tidewater area of Virginia. The three stories making up the book are linked by having a common protagonist, Paul Whitehead. Set during the Depression and World War II, the stories present Paul's memories, based, as the Author's Note tells us, on Styron's own experiences. The tone of the stories avoids nostalgia and sentiment, giving us the boy's experiences unmediated by the experience of age.

The third story, which provides the name of the collection, is a masterpiece. On the morning in question, a brutally hot one, Paul is awakened at 1 a.m. by his mother's scream. In the last stages of cancer, her pain cannot be mitigated even by the morphine delivered by the night nurse. Forgotten, Paul lingers around the edges of the house where his mother is dying, overhearing his father's increasingly despairing conversations, taking comfort from the maid, Flo, who is legendary in the town for her crankiness, and examining his own memories of his parents arguing.

If I were teaching a class on the short story, I would have the students study this one carefully. It succeeds on all levels. The word choice reflects the vocabulary of a thirteen-year-old boy who likes to read, as we know from the books in his room. The things that he thinks about and notices—his guilt over drinking directly out of the water bottle in the refrigerator, the rankness of the chicken necks boys are using to catch crabs, his worry over what the changes in his body mean—are also typical and beautifully rendered in sentences that ache with clarity and emotion.

The organization of the story amazes me, the way answers are given and withheld, the echoes and repetitions, the gentle foreshadowing, the voices of the people in his world. Gruff Mr. Quigley docks Paul's pay for every soda and harangues Ralph, the store drudge, yet shows his compassionate side first to Ralph and later to Paul. Flo listens to radio preachers in the night and tries to comfort Paul with her faith, while later attempts by the Presbyterian minister and his wife to comfort Paul's father, a stalwart of the church, draw only a shocking contempt for a god who could allow such pain. The headlines of approaching war on the papers Paul delivers are echoed later as he trudges the street by the Flying Fortresses from the Army base down the road flying over him. And these signs of war are themselves premonitions of the death and grief to come.

The story takes on even more meaning when set against the other stories in the book. In the first story, “Love Day”, Paul is 20 and serving as a platoon leader in the Pacific. As he and his shipmates fret about when they will actually join the assault on Okinawa, Paul recalls an incident from childhood when their Oldsmobile broke down near a peanut field, and his father, although an engineer helping to build warships, is unable to fix it. Paul's remarks on a story in The Saturday Evening Post he's reading about a possible Japanese invasion earn him a tongue-lashing from his mother who loves the Japanese culture and upbraids him for reading trashy, scare-mongering stories. His father, who never raises his voice, a gentle poet somehow caught up in building war machines, snaps and tells her not to be such a fool, asking what she thinks he does all day, what she thinks the Flying Fortresses are that fly overhead every Sunday.

In the second story, “Shadrach”, Paul is ten and caught up with a family called the Dabneys, who have come down in the world, the father a bootlegger and the mother “a huge sweaty generous breadloaf of a woman”. An only child, he loves their “sheer teeming multitude” of seven children and loud eccentric life. One day, an ancient and emaciated black man turns up, Shadrach, who has walked from Alabama to die on Dabney land, 75 years after Mr. Dabney's great-grandfather sold him. Through dissolute generations since, the once-proud plantation has been reduced to a dilapidated box home made of concrete blocks.The struggling family nevertheless tries to honor the wishes of this all too human (and rank) reminder of their past.

The past and how it informs our present is one of the threads brought out by the proximity of these stories, as is the expectation of war, the small wars with those around us and the mechanized war of nations. But mostly the stories are about what it means to be a man, trying to protect your family and honor your legacy, taking refuge from emotion in gruffness and in words. This last reminds me of Ian McEwan's Solar which was also partially about hiding from emotion in words. McEwan's trademark of having some violent event intrude on normal life and set the story in motion seemed to me contrived after Styron's remarkable stories of the chaos that can upend our small and private lives.

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