William Styron, JFK and the Havana

Los Angeles Times

April 20, 2008 Sunday
Home Edition

Lighting up the past;
Havanas in Camelot Personal Essays; William Styron; Random House: 166 pp., $23

BYLINE: Marc Weingarten, Marc Weingarten is the author of "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote and the New Journalism Revolution."

In the months before he fell into his final, fatal illness in the fall of 2006, William Styron compiled a number of essays, lectures and occasional pieces that he had written over the previous 20 years of his life. "Havanas in Camelot" is the result of that foraging process, and while it's a minor-key achievement in this great novelist's career, it is nonetheless a modest delight.

After the surprise success of "Darkness Visible," Styron's 1990 chronicle of his battle with depression, he suddenly found himself with a vast audience for a book of confessional nonfiction. It's to Styron's credit that he didn't continue down that road for financial gain as some kind of literary guru for mental health. But it did encourage him to write more personal essays of the kind found here. Taken collectively, these 14 pieces are the empathetic and keenly observed recollections of a grand old man of letters looking back with fondness on a life rich with incident and the pleasures of reading and writing.

Most are short and modest in their ambitions -- the very antithesis of Styron's ambitions as a novelist of emotional complexity and historical sweep. It's a good bet that most of these pieces were for-hire work, assignments he accepted because the subject matter caught his attention for some reason. Hence, their casual, almost garrulous tone.

The title story was written on the occasion of the much-buzzed-about Sotheby's auction of President Kennedy's possessions in 1996, the one where his cigar humidor was sold for nearly $575,000. Styron, as it turned out, has a story to tell about the humidor's owner and a state dinner in honor of Nobel Prize winners at the White House in April 1962.

After the meal, many in Kennedy's inner circle lit up cigars; Styron was entranced. "Only in fine Paris restaurants, where -- unlike in America -- cigar smoking was encouraged, had I inhaled such a delicious aroma." He ponders the allure of the cigar, the almost sensual charge in smoking one. In 1963, he accepts a Partagás (a banned Cuban cigar, no less) from Kennedy, a gift that inexplicably gave him a "certain odd, fugitive sadness . . . a sadness I couldn't quite fathom." After Kennedy's assassination, he smoked it in memory of the late president.

The longest piece, "A Case of the Great Pox," is a funny yet painful story about young Styron contracting syphilis while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Parris Island, S.C. Mostly, it's about the gratuitous, utterly deranged sadism of Styron's physician, who represented, in "his bloodless and remote way, the authority figure that most people dread encountering but so often do meet face to face: the dehumanized doctor."

As Styron reminds us in this and other essays, things were different then. A carrier of syphilis in the 1950s was a social leper of sorts, untouchable and undesirable, especially before any sensible cure was discovered. The same went for writers with a proclivity for using dirty language -- "dirty" being a relative term, of course. In "I'll Have to Ask Indiana- polis," he writes of the prudishness of U.S. publishers, who were "still profoundly in thrall to nineteenth-century standards." Exhibit A: the notes his publisher gives him on his first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness," such as, "[We] will accept big boobs but will you still revise bit about the open fly."

Some of the most pleasurable writing in "Havanas in Camelot" is in the form of fan notes. Styron is that rarity, a literary lion who writes approvingly of other writers. Truman Capote, in particular, is someone whom Styron admits to copping from, if unconsciously. In "Celebrating Capote," he says that the rich lapidary prose style in "Lie Down in Darkness" was greatly influenced by Capote's early short stories, which Styron compares to the best of Hawthorne and Poe.

Elsewhere, Styron talks about the impact James Baldwin's friendship had on his somewhat hidebound attitudes toward race, traveling across country in the loopy company of Terry Southern and his spiritual kinship with Mark Twain, whom Styron calls "my most beloved literary forefather." No scores are settled, no political agendas aired. Instead, we have a gently rolling memory loop from a man who was generous in his praise and exacting in his art.