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BOOK REVIEW

A daughter offers insights into her famous author dad

Memoir details Styron’s public, private personas

Alexandra Styron discusses the struggles and triumphs of her father, author William Styron, who died in 2006. Alexandra Styron discusses the struggles and triumphs of her father, author William Styron, who died in 2006. (AP/File 1998)
By Eric Liebetrau
April 23, 2011

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Memoirs by the offspring of famous artists, writers, musicians, or actors frequently take one of a few forms: a detailed, occasionally defensive exegesis of the author’s work, a hagiographic account of why the parent should be considered unique within his/her medium, or a behind-the-scenes exposé revealing the true story of the artist, often much less glamorous than the public perception.

In “Reading My Father,’’ Alexandra Styron neatly navigates among these types, creating a respectful warts-and-all portrait of her iconic father, William Styron, who died in 2006 at 81 and was one of the most significant American novelists of the 20th century. Drawing on memory, conversations with his best friend, novelist Peter Matthiessen, his longtime editor, Bob Loomis, and hundreds of fragmentary unpublished papers housed in the library at Duke University, Styron successfully fleshes out her father’s character, which could be alternately jovial, passionate, impatient, blustery, and even wrathful.

After the acclaim garnered by his first novel, “Lie Down in Darkness,’’ which he published at 26, Styron embarked on a career as one of the “Big Male Writers,’’ those larger-than-life figures who “perpetuated, without apology, the cliche of the gifted, hard-drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of twentieth-century literature a muscular, glamorous aura.’’ His early success afforded him an audience with a variety of cultural icons. At a single cocktail party in New York, he met Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Tennessee Williams, and Marlene Dietrich. During his career he would also become friends with other important writers of the era, including Matthiessen, Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Plimpton. (Styron, Plimpton, and others founded the Paris Review in 1953.)

Despite his critical and commercial success, however, Styron continued to struggle with what his daughter calls his many “bugaboos,’’ which included depression, excessive drinking, clinical hypochondria, and unpredictable mood swings. She paints him as an emotionally fragile writer who was provoked by the smallest transgression to outsized bluster and even violent rage (“He’d lob his invective into the room, storm away, and leave everything behind him in flames.’’). He also chafed understandably at the backlash caused by his two most well-known works, “The Confessions of Nat Turner’’ (1967) and “Sophie’s Choice’’ (1979), both of which dealt with controversial subject matter. Even though “Nat Turner’’ won the Pulitzer Prize and “Sophie’s Choice’’ the National Book Award, Styron was exceedingly frustrated with the narrow-mindedness of those who criticized him. Ultimately, because of frustration with his writing and his deepening depression, “Sophie’s Choice’’ would be the last novel he was able to complete.

To her credit, the author is candid about her father’s emotional and mental problems, noting that his family often bore the brunt of his shaky psyche. “My father’s tempestuous spirit ruled our family’s private life as surely as his eminence defined the more public one.’’ Throughout the book, she ably interweaves her psychological examinations with their attendant reflections in his writing, especially in his visceral memoir of his continued depression, “Darkness Visible’’ (1990).

Alexandra Styron is a natural writer, fluid, and engaging, even poetic at times; her narrative is most dynamic when she plumbs her father’s many psychological problems: “You could say my father’s whole life was one long preamble to personal Armageddon. Hypersensitive, aloof, unexamined, not to mention hypochondriacal, agnostic, and alcoholic. Intellectual, passionate and infantile.’’

Even as his star rose, Styron could not shake his personal demons, and the last 20 years of his life were spent in a pitched battle against his own mind. Only the “magical, time-bending little realm’’ of their home in Martha’s Vineyard provided respite, as if he and the family were “anesthetized by the sweet balm of summer so that the edges of Daddy’s misery seemed less sharp, his spiral not as consistently downward.’’

Though the chronology is occasionally disjointed, Alexandra proves a consummate guide to her father’s tumultuous life. Styron fans will delight in this unique portrait of a true literary lion, who, along with Mailer, “were part of a small crew pulling the oars of the Great Novel as it glided through the middle of the century.’’

Eric Liebetrau, managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkusreviews.com.

READING MY FATHER: A Memoir By Alexandra Styron

Scribner, 285 pp., illustrated, $25