The Suicide Run has an adjunct: ‘Five Tales of the Marine Corps’. They are autobiographical short stories. In ‘My Father’s House,’ for example, begins ‘One morning in the year after the end of the war (the Good War, that is, the second War to End all Wars) when I returned to my father’s house in Virginia, and had slept long merciful hours…’ Note the world weariness, the sarcasm (the War to End all Wars, was, of course, The First World War) yet we know this is a young man, a soldier and now a civilian, his civic duty having being honourably completed. He should be at ease with himself. But as we know from Darkness Visible William Styron is never a man at ease with himself.
That unease is visible here and runs through the tales like the lettering in a stock of rock. Here he tells us about the barn-like Palace Cafe, but like any good story-teller tells us more about himself. ‘I loved the Palace Cafe. And I loved getting drunk there. Its therapy lay in the power of the four of five beers that I guzzled to ease, almost after the first half bottle, the racking misery of my time in the Pacific.’ Sex, for any young man, was a constant preoccupation, Darlynne Fulcher (listen to the name, no other description is needed, although he does give one) his favourite waitress is at that safe age, over 40, when she’s not really a woman but a shoulder to cry on. ‘She plopped down a beer: “You look like you need some pussy.” It was not at all a come-on; in fact, I realized it was a way to break the ice…’
The good war, the Second World War is juxtaposed with the story before it, which gives the book it’s name: ‘The Suicide Run’. In a book about war -and the utter futility of war- you would think it would be a tale of derring do, great courage and sacrifice. The Suicide Run, however, is an escape from camp with his fellow office Lacy’s in the latter’s ‘spunky’ Citroen. They both have in a sense been duped. They’ve served their time in the killing fields off the islands off Japan and had prepared themselves, as best they could, for their inevitable death when the bugle call came to invade mainland Japan. The atomic bomb was something of a miracle, saving their lives. Lacy had acquired a French wife and built up a thriving business. Styron was a man of leisure, a writer, with the success of his first novel, all but guaranteed. Yet, both, with the promise of promotion to First Lieutenant, and no formal training in the Reserve Marine Corp needed, or expected, were granted an annuity, a bibelot, that was too good to turn down. Then came Korea and a casualty list in which officers were shipped in and out with a name tag on their toes so quickly it wasn’t worthwhile for other officers to learn the novice’s names. Lacy and Styron, if they were going to die, at least wanted to bathe themselves in and plough as much pussy as they could in their time off. Lacy had a wife. Styron cuckolded the wife of a friend. There’s no honour in war. An 800 mile run there and back with no sleep, in between, was just crazy. But there’s crazy and there’s crazy. William Styron in measured prose shows what it means to be a man and a marine.
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