Thursday, July 16, 2009

The New Yorker: "Rat Beach" by William Styron

This story, which will be included in a collection to be published this year, is among the year’s best in The New Yorker. The narrator is a young Marine in WWII who has just missed “Iwo Jima’s bloodbath” and is now in Saipan preparing for the assault on the Japanese homeland. He is frightened, and being on Saipan, thinking, watching the steady stream of ambulances with the wounded from Okinawa, only makes him more frightened. The story is a beautiful description of the island and the mess that the war had made of it.

Now it is late July and they are being prepared for the assault, but can’t be told when it will occur. Word has spread that Japanese civilians will fight them fiercely when they arrive, that the “civilian population had gone berserk” instead of being demoralized by the defeat at Okinawa. Then they are called to a special briefing by a Navy Admiral, and they march down “Rat Beach” to attend. Although the narrator’s Marine commander says the Admiral is a fool, they all know that the time has come, and while they all display the same bravado, the narrator is more frightened than ever.

And he can’t stand it. So he sleeps with his gun (as well as the “Pocket Book of Verse” that is also his constant companion) and makes plans to “destroy” his fear. It’s a powerful moment when the reader realizes what he intends to do, especially because we know—but the narrator does not—that the assault isn’t going to happen. In a matter of days, an atomic bomb will be dropped on Hiroshima and then another on Nagasaki, and the war will be over. But the story ends before that happens, and so we only know what the narrator is thinking of doing.

July 20, 2009: “Rat Beach” by William Styron


Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree, one of the year's best. I can't stop thinking about the main character, the time period, and the amazing way Stegner wrote the story itself.

Paul Epstein said...

This is not one of the better New Yorker stories, in my opinion. There is simply too little to distinguish it from the myriad other stories written on the same topic. The literary soldier who isolates himself by immersing himself in literature is a very standard trope in such fiction (perhaps because this type of fiction is usually autobiographical, and when writers were in the armed services, they presumably read as much as they could.)

I was a student of Laura Furman, and she said to be wary of describing dreams in short stories, as it is often a rather cheap and easy way of introducing thoughts and imagery. (This is my best recollection of what she said -- I'm sure I garbled it somewhat but the gist is that, in general, she doesn't like dream descriptions in short fiction.)

I do not think that the dream description "works" in this story, either.

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Paul, let me first say I completely agree with Laura Furman's advice about dreams. They are often manipulative and filled with over-wrought symbolism. Here, though, I didn't feel that the dream got in the way of the story, and in fact was a manifestation of the narrator's waking fear, rather than being symbolic. But I think it's good instinct to be wary of dreams.

And you may be right about the subject being too familiar. For me, though, the precise situation was fresh, and the narrator's fear so palpable, that I didn't feel like we were covering old ground. Of course everyone has a different reading history . . .

Jacob Russell said...

Pure war kitch. How realist conventions go wrong. Will post a riview later today on Barking Dog