Futile gestures: William Styron, The Long March

William Styron, The Long March. The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (1999), pp. 71-128. First published 1952

William Styron (1925-2006) is probably best known for his controversial 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, and Darkness Visible: a memoir of madness (1990), about his descent into clinical depression, and subsequent recovery. Like Eudora Welty, whose story June Recital opens this anthology of stories (I posted on it here yesterday), Styron was born in the south, and is said to have favoured a ‘southern Gothic’ style in his fiction. There’s certainly an element of it in The Long March.

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverThe Long March is the second story in Ford’s anthology of ‘long stories’ (I also discussed his choice of that term in yesterday’s post), and one of the shorter ones at just over fifty pages. I had mixed feelings about it. I wonder if the title is intended to echo the name usually given to the series of strategic retreats undertaken by the Chinese communist forces (under the rising influence of Mao) to escape the pursuit of the then dominant forces of their enemy nationalist army.

It’s a grim story about a martinet colonel who subjects his unit of marine reservists, most of them unfit and untrained, to a brutal thirty-mile overnight march in the swampy countryside of Carolina. Far from strategic and, as with the Red Army, militarily justifiable and ultimately successful, it’s what Peter Cook described in his famous, darkly satirical sketch with Jonathan Miller about posh, ‘stiff upper lip’ WWII officers (YouTube clip HERE) from the seminal ‘Beyond the Fringe’ comedy review, as a ‘futile gesture’.

The story opens with an account of an accidental ‘friendly fire’ incident in which a group of young reservists has been shelled by their own artillery as they queued for dinner. It’s told from the viewpoint of Lieutenant Culver, a veteran of WWII called back into service because he never removed himself from the reserve list – a decision he now bitterly regrets as he witnesses the pointless cruelty, stupidity and ineptitude (like the friendly fire incident) of the military regime he finds himself back in. He misses his wife and post-war peacetime life, and despairs as the world lurches back into yet more wars and conflicts in distant lands.

His fellow officers are appalled by the colonel’s gung-ho, macho manner and uncompromising orders. Most notably rebellious is Captain Mannix: he hates the strutting colonel, and his behaviour with him borders on open insubordination. When he begins leading his group of physically unfit men on the pointlessly barbaric, horribly long march, however, he’s determined that they – and he – will complete it, depriving the colonel of the satisfaction of confirming that they’re ‘soft’. It’s a matter of honour for him.

What follows is sometimes almost unbearably grim, but there’s a kind of redemption and softening at the very end in a scene when the march has ended. As the men try to recover from the ordeal, ‘one of the Negro maids employed in the unit’ shows human kindness when she sees the half-crippled Mannix swaying giddily as he limps towards the showers:

Culver would remember this: the two of them communicating across that chasm one unspoken moment of sympathy and understanding…

It’s a moment that almost makes the previous fifty gruelling pages worth enduring.