- A Good Cigar and a Glass of Bourbon
William Styron began to assemble the essays included in Havanas in Camelot shortly before his death in 2006; the final order was made by his wife, Rose Styron, and the manuscript prepared for publication by his biographer, James L. W. West III. Including one previously unpublished essay and two that appear in English for the first time (both originally written for French magazines), the fourteen pieces here gathered do not exhaust the many essays written since or omitted from This Quiet Dust (enlarged edition, 1993). We must, however, be grateful for this carefully edited and beautifully produced slim volume by means of which we can engage once more in an intimate, if largely one-sided, conversation with a favorite author, can sit down—perhaps a good cigar and glass of bourbon at hand—and listen as Styron holds forth on matters close to his heart.
Although subtitled “personal essays,” some of the selections are [End Page xxix] more personal than others. The longest, “A Case of the Great Pox,” recounts a misdiagnosis by Lieutenant Commander Klotz, a navy physician, that landed Styron one “wartime autumn” in the Parris Island clap shack to endure a “cure” comprised mainly of making him feel morally degenerate. “Too Late for Conversion or Prayer” finds Styron ruminating on his prostate, a gland so given to problems that he finds in its existence proof that God does not exist; and “Moviegoer” recalls his adolescent infatuation with the movies and considers their probable effect on his writing. One of the book’s illustrations presents a page from the fourteen-year-old author’s diary in which he reviews Invisible Stripes, starring George Raft and Humphrey Bogart—“pretty good” is his critique in to to—and W. C. Fields’s My Little Chickadee—“very good” is his trenchant assessment. “Slavery’s Pain, Disney’s Gain” laments the Walt Disney Company’s plans for a slavery theme park—an essay that returns Styron to the subject of his slave-owning grandmother and “the collective anguish from which white Americans have always averted their eyes.”
In several essays the author predictably considers literary matters: “Fessing Up” acknowledges his role in compiling the Modern Library list of the hundred best modern novels in English before he concludes that what the exercise mostly revealed was that “all lists are weird, but each list is weird in its own way” (the list, reprinted here, includes Sophie’s Choice at position 96). The brief essay “A Literary Forefather” finds affinities between himself and Mark Twain insofar as both have suffered at the hands of critical puritans. In “Celebrating Capote” literary friends are eulogized—“an artist . . . who could make words dance and sing, change color mysteriously, perform feats of magic, provoke laughter, send a chill up the back, touch the heart”—and “Jimmy in the House,” a reminiscence of James Baldwin that recalls how The Fire Next Time “would shake the conscience of the nation as few literary documents have ever done” (an illustration offers a heavily annotated page from Styron’s copy of the book). Terry Southern, “musing over his Old Grand-Dad,” is captured in “Transcontinental with Tex,” which enfolds a lovely sketch of Nelson Algren and a surreal visit to the Cook County jail arranged by Algren for the amusement of his on-the-road friends and fellow writers.
Less successful are Styron’s efforts to find something to say about censorship and the appeals of forbidden literature (“I’ll Have to Ask Indianapolis—”), in which the conclusions are banal, and a brace of essays—“Havanas in Cuba” and “Les Amis du Président”—which are largely occasions to let us know the sort of company Styron often kept. Both do contain charming details: that JFK did not let the embargo of Cuba end his supply of Partagas cigars; that without the help of Melina Mercouri, a recognizable celebrity, neither Styron nor his famous literary friends—Arthur Miller, Carlos Fuentes, and Elie Wiesel—would have made it past police barricades to join François Mitterrand during...