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William Styron, Rat beach

September 27, 2009

I haven’t read any William Styron, though I have seen the movie of Sophie’s Choice, and so was pleased to have the opportunity to read his “Rat beach” for one of my many bookgroups this month. This short story was published in The New Yorker three years after Styron’s death and is about a young second lieutenant in the Marines training on Saipan in the Western Pacific in mid-1945. Their goal is, of course, the invasion of Japan. I should add here that Styron himself did serve with the Marines in the war.

The story starts with:

When I was seventeen, bravado, mingled with what must have been a death wish, made me enlist in the officer-in-training program of the Marine Corps.

He continues that, as they were young and considered “too callow to lead troops into battle”, they were sent to college “where, as book-toting privates, we would gain a little learning and seasoning, and also a year or two of physical and mental growth”. As he was particularly young, he was at college longer than some and so was not in the first wave of second lieutenants sent into battle in the last stages of the Pacific War. He quotes EB Sledge as saying, in his book With the old breed, that “Our officers got hit so soon and so often that it seemed to me the position of second lieutenant in a rifle company had been made obsolete by modern warfare”. And so the scene is set for a young second lieutenant arriving at Saipan with this likely fate in his mind.

The story, then, centres on the “internal conflict” of a young second lieutenant who is “scared” – scared of dying and also scared of failing as a leader of his men. With some pathos Styron writes:

As I lay on my cot, “The Pocket Book of Verse” would slip from my hand, and fear – vile, cold fear – would steal through my flesh…

This book of verse was published in 1945 and contains English and American poems, including those by the war poet AE Housman who, among other things, wrote about the futility of heroism. For our narrator, Housman’s poems contain “a note both stoical and ill-omened”.

In a highly evocative passage he describes the island’s snails – their hard shell covering their great vulnerability. They “were always getting squashed beneath our field boots, making a tiny mess that reminded me of the fragility of my own corporeal being”.  There is also a gorgeously written section in which a “desk admiral” delivers a shallow (to his listeners) motivational “spiel” under “klieg” lights and gesticulating with his “meerschaum” pipe (note the German-derived words in this section!), after which they are led on a wild, head-clearing run in the storm by their unconventional lieutenant colonel, Happy Halloran, who gives his own far more effective motivational speech. He says “I really think the world of you. When the time comes, I know you’ll do your best – that’s the best the Marine Corps has to offer”.

As short stories go, this one is fairly straightforward in its narrative and plot – but this doesn’t mean it’s simple. It’s also a powerful story, not least for the decision our narrator comes to at the end – but that, you will have to read for yourselves!

PS I really should have mentioned, here, the overall irony relating to “the bomb”. I’m not sure why I didn’t because as I read the story I kept expecting the bomb to be mentioned (or to fall, even). Was the gathering going to be an announcement re the bomb? Were the planes heard overhead going to be carrying the bomb? We readers knew that the bomb was going to change everything for the narrator but he didn’t know it. The ultimate irony.

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