by Stephen Parrish
Sophie’s Choice won the National Book Award in 1980. It contains some autobiographical elements, including the passage chosen for this post; Styron became an editor for McGraw-Hill after graduating from Duke in 1947.
At that time McGraw-Hill & Company (for such was my employer’s name) lacked any literary éclat, having for so long and successfully purveyed its hulking works of technology that the small trade-book house in which I labored, and which aspired to the excellence of Scribner or Knopf, was considered something of a joke in the business. It was a little as if a vast huckstering organization like Montgomery Ward or Masters had had the effrontery to set up an intimate salon dealing in mink and chinchilla that everyone in the trade knew were dyed beaver from Japan.
So in my capacity as the lowest drudge in the office hierarchy I not only was denied the opportunity to read manuscripts even of passing merit, but was forced to plow my way daily through fiction and nonfiction of the humblest possible quality—coffee-stained and thumb-smeared stacks of Hammerhill Bond whose used, ravaged appearance proclaimed at once their author’s (or agent’s) terrible desperation and McGraw-Hill’s function as publisher of last resort. But at my age, with a snootful of English Lit. that made me as savagely demanding as Matthew Arnold in my insistence that the written word exemplify only the highest seriousness and truth, I treated these forlorn offspring of a thousand strangers’ lonely and fragile desire with the magisterial, abstract loathing of an ape plucking vermin from his pelt.
Since the above passage falls short of my 250 word limit, I’m going to cheat and post another one. Here the narrator believes he is about to get laid by the intoxicating (and incidentally wealthy) Leslie Lapidus, having just toured her opulent home. A large percentage of the novel to this point has been devoted to anticipating tonight’s debauchery:
I had of course been all day in a state of erotic semi-arousal. At the same time I was totally unprepared for such affluence, the likes of which my provincial eyes had glimpsed in the pages of The New Yorker and in movies but never actually beheld. This cultural shock—a sudden fusion of the libido with a heady apprehension of filthy but thoughtfully spent lucre—caused me a troubling mixture of sensations as I sat there: accelerated pulse, marked increase in my hectic flush, sudden salivation and, finally, a spontaneous and exorbitant stiffening against my Hanes Jockey shorts which was to last all evening in whatever position I found myself—seated, standing up, or even walking slightly hobbled among the crowded diners at Gage & Tollner’s, the restaurant where I took Leslie somewhat later for dinner. My stallionoid condition was of course a phenomenon related to my extreme youth, seldom to appear (and never at such length after aet. thirty). I had experienced this priapism several times before, but scarcely so intensely and certainly never in circumstances not exclusively sexual. (Most notably there had been the occasion when I was about sixteen, at a school dance, when one of those artful little coquettes I have mentioned—of which Leslie was such a cherished antithesis—took me over all possible fraudulent jumps: breathing on my neck, tickling my sweaty palm with her fingertip, and insinuating her satin groin against my own with such resolute albeit counterfeit wantonness that only an almost saintly will power, after hours of this, forced me to break apart from the loathsome little vampire and make my swollen way into the night.) But at the Lapidus house no such bodily aggravation was needed. There was simply combined with the thought of Leslie’s imminent appearance a stirring awareness—I confess without shame—of this plenitude of money. I would also be dishonest if I did not admit that to the sweet prospect of copulation there was added the fleeting image of matrimony, should it turn out that way.
Faulkner once said of Hemingway that he “had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway responded: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Nevertheless. One thing I like about Styron’s writing is that it sometimes sends me to the dictionary. He almost naively incorporates seldom used words, like a child discovering baubles overlooked by other children. Yet childish it most certainly isn’t. It’s muscular, confident; Styron writes with the poise and pluck of a man who knows he can use any damn word he likes. His dry humor assures I’ll laugh with him rather than at him as he makes his “swollen way into the night.”
What do you think?
Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.
Bonus video! In case you don’t already have an MFA in creative writing, and don’t want to spend more than four minutes and thirty-seven seconds earning one, here’s Kurt Vonnegut, who used to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop:
Before he went to Iowa he worked for Sports Illustrated, until assigned to write a story about a racehorse that jumped a fence in an apparent escape attempt. Vonnegut wrote, “The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” and quit.