New Books: William Styron's Essays

"Havanas in Camelot," a posthumous collection of William Styron's essays, transports us back to an era when being a novelist meant a kind of lustrous celebrity, as Styron and his contemporaries ("our vintage"—Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, James Baldwin) jockeyed to inherit the outsize mantles of Hemingway and Faulkner. Each of Styron's 14 pieces—mostly about life and writing in the '50s and '60s—is a gem. Here he is, a debut author, lounging around Paris cafés and smirking at the hordes of "leonine" Hemingway poseurs. Here he is, a short time later, a luminary on the rise, sailing off Cape Cod and smoking contraband Cubans with JFK (hence the title).

The collection's best piece is set at a moment when this heady future seemed impossible, during Styron's Marine training in 1944. It opens on the medical ward, where Styron's been diagnosed with syphilis—the "great pox" whose contraction would prevent a guy from ever making officer. Even on the venereal wing, syphilis had a dubious distinction. It was rare, which meant the getter must have gotten it in the most squalid of ways. "In square, churchgoing America at the time of my diagnosis," Styron writes, "a syphilitic was regarded … as a degenerate, and a dangerously infectious one at that."

It's a view held by Styron's own doctor, who misdiagnoses his patient. When the mistake is exposed, Styron is giddy to recover a life he'd counted as lost. Fighting in "the bloody Pacific" was a horror he could deal with, he writes; "in that gray ward, I'd nearly been broken by fears that were beyond imagining." Also beyond imagining, just then: Paris, the president, literary fame—the world his essays capture with a fleeting grace.