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Styron and Cheever have talent, daughters and demons

May 1, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

I first read “Lie Down in Darkness” many years ago but never forgot it entirely. I didn’t remember that the author, William Styron, was only 26 when he wrote it. Recently I re-read this sad and wonderful book and was amazed at what an excellent first novel it was and is.

Published in 1951, it is somewhat autobiographical like most first novels. Styron grew up in Newport News, Va., and set his novel in a fictitious town, Port Warwick, modeled after it.

(Today there is a “new urbanism” development in Newport News called Port Warwick that draws on every connection to the famous author. The center of the development is Styron Square and streets are named after characters in the book and various authors.)

The protagonist in “Lie Down in Darkness” is a young woman, Peyton Loftis, and Styron paints a painful and touching portrait of her. When the novel opens, Peyton has committed suicide. Her family is struggling to attend her funeral physically and emotionally.

Styron at a young age seems to have had an insight into women, African-Americans, alcohol and the behavior of alcoholics -- which perhaps presaged his own battles in years ahead.

He wrote the novels “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” The latter was both praised and criticized for his efforts to represent African-Americans, but it won a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1990 he wrote “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” which turned Styron into a spokesman for depression and mental illness. He died in 2006 at age 81.

Alexandra Styron, his youngest daughter, wrote a 2011 memoir “Reading My Father,” which I have not yet read but will soon. I look forward to it.

Styron and his daughter have a lot in common with another one of my favorite authors, John Cheever, and his daughter, Susan, who wrote a 1984 memoir with the wonderful title “Home Before Dark.”

Both Cheever and Styron were alcoholics and great writers and surely their families suffered as a result from both afflictions.

I recently visited a friend who lives outside New York City. He’s a big reader but somehow had never read Cheever, whose many short stories focus on the suburbs of New York. I found a book of Cheever short stories for him to read and was surprised some days later when he complained that Cheever’s stories were “very dark.”

I suppose some of them are. But to me they are also emotionally true and touching. Stories like “The Swimmer,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “Farewell, My Brother” and “The Death of Justina” also generate wry smiles of recognition and perhaps some chuckles.

“I write to make sense of my life,” Cheever used to say. He also suffered from depression – no surprise as depression is a symptom of alcoholism. He died at age 70 in 1982 and his book of short stories won a Pulitzer Prize.

His widow, Mary Cheever, published a collection of his short stories after he died. For a time, it was impossible to read these stories due to a publication lawsuit, but that was apparently settled because I found “Fall River and Other Uncollected Stories” on line at a good price. A copy will soon be in my hands. Likewise, I will soon be enjoying “Reading My Father.”

Life is good.

For More Information, Visit These Links:

  • William Styron in WikiPedia
  • William Styron's book list at www.goodreads.com
  • William Styron obituary

  • John Cheever in Sherwin On the Web's Printed Matter November 15, 1998
  • John Cheever in WikiPedia
  • John Cheever's book list at www.goodreads.com
  • Biography and Book Review at The Guardian

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