What a dark and strange novel this is. Told in fierce omniscient narration, Lie Down in Darkness is the story of a Southern family struck through with envy, vengeance, sorrow, and bitterness. It is a family marked, even years before it occurs, by the suicide of one of the young Loftis daughters in the humid days after the United States dropped atomic bombs. The novel opens out as it brushes against the African-American spiritual followers of a man who calls himself Daddy Faith; Jewish artists and intellectuals in New York City; a wrenching World War; and, growling underneath the surface, the struggle between guilt and pride in the South.
William Styron's debut novel was published to great acclaim in 1951 and won the Prix de Rome by the American Academy in Rome. I am not the first to be startled that William Styron was a mere 26 years old when he published this book. Despite his years, he doesn't hesitate to claim a strong storytelling voice, to take a stance. This is a hero-less novel of judgments, and the narrator is not an exception.
Zoom in on Port Warwick, Virginia. Here is Milton Loftis, an alcoholic lawyer in his early 50s who once had political ambitions. Here is his wife, Helen, who brought the money to the family. Here are their two daughters: Maudie, a mentally-impaired cripple who dies over a horrid weekend in Charlottesville when she's about twenty; and Peyton, beautiful and intelligent and doomed. Maudie is Helen's favorite; Milton rather forgets she's around. Peyton is the target of Helen's powerful loathing and Milton's discomfiting affection … if it best can be called that. Helen and Milton have an awful marriage, marked by fear and bitterness; it's a relationship that reminds me of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. Milton finds solace, for a time, in his longtime mistress, Dolly Bonner. Biting at the heels of them all is a haunting sense of godlessness.
Most novels unfold in a variation between expansion and compression–that is, stretching some scenes out, and compressing others into a few lines in a way that brings texture and movement to the tale. Styron, however, settles almost entirely in the "expansion" mode; he is patient with his story and adept at honing in on the inward energy of self-destruction, the outward energy of gossip and posturing. While it seems to be an old-fashioned fictional technique to dwell on description, I found myself fond of Styron's sharp, lingering eye on the faces of his characters, whether–like Peyton, Milton, and Helen–they bear an influence that is felt on every page, or–like Peyton's wedding guests, or her first beau, Dick Cartwright–they float in for a short time.
Narrative texture, then, comes to this novel in other ways — the lyrical opening pages of a train traveling through Virginia, told in disarming second-person, for example, and the surprising section near the end that shifts into breathless first-person for fifty pages without a single paragraph break. Oftentimes we approach a scene already knowing how it will unfold. We move closely into the minds of a number of characters, watching some of these expansive scenes at the distance of, say, Carey, the frustrated Episcopal minister, or Lennie, the red-headed urbanite. Other scenes are owned only by the narrator in, for example, a fascinating account of the history of Potter's Field, the island off New York where un-claimed bones are lain, and then moved, and then lain again, as space permits. The variation of voice is what keeps a painful story palatable.
In a passage describing society's reaction to the affair between Milton Loftis and Dolly Bonner:
Hell, they'd say in the country club locker room, you know how Milt's getting his. Everybody knew, bearing testimony to the fact that suburban vice, like a peeling nose, is almost impossible to conceal. It went all over town, this talk, like a swarm of bees, settling down lazily on polite afternoon sun porches to rise once more and settle down again with a busy murmur among cautious ladylike foursomes on the golf course, buzzing pleasurably there amid ladylike whacks of the golf ball and cautious pullings-down of panties which bound too tightly. Everybody knew about their affair and everybody talked about it, and because of some haunting inborn squeamishness it would not have relieved Loftis to know that nobody particularly cared.
At times, I itched at the book's pretension: the ambitions of the artist to make this an "epic" are painfully apparent, and his relentless focus on the humiliations of his characters sometimes feels exploitative. When I closed the book finally, I was relieved to be free of the tension of characters that find so many ways to enact and absorb violence. I wish the book had been trimmed by about fifty pages or so. Simply put, Styron can overdo it. Perhaps this is the one place where the youthfulness of the author peeps through. Another flaw of the book? His rendering of African-American communities in Virginia rings of condescension and is marred by simple stereotypes (watermelon, fried chicken).
I came away from Lie Down in Darkness impressed with Styron's guts, both as a technician and an imagination. Indeed I was surprised by how far Styron was willing to go with the macabre; the overtures of incest took me aback and complicated the rendering of love that threads through the novel. Despite the book's weaknesses, Styron's gifts are enveloping. This was the first of his relatively few books that I have read. It won't be the last.