I wandered over to The New Yorker website just to take a look. I had not intended to spend too much time there, but wouldn't you know it, the first story on the page jumped right out at me and I had to take a look. I figured I would read just the first paragraph or so, but that was not enough. Soon, I found myself on the last page.
The story is called "Rat Beach" and it is evidently part of a collection of stories that will be published later this year. The author, William Styron, is perhaps best known for his novel Sophie's Choice (1979), which was later made into a movie. I have not read the book nor seen the movie, both of which I have been meaning to do.
In William Styron's "Rat Beach", our American narrator is on the beach in Saipan, a beautiful place whose beauty still stands out despite having been trampled by war. A second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, he awaits his next assignment. His company had previously been tasked with acting as a decoy, distracting the Japanese from the intended targets. This time, it would be for real. He would have to face the enemy and take his chances with fate.
The story is set during World War II as the war is nearing its end:
. . . had I been older by only a year or so I would have been immersed in Iwo Jima's bloodbathl a mere six months and I would have been one of Sledge's Okinawa martyrs, obliterated in the deadliest land engagement of the Pacific war. I escaped this horror by a hair. [excerpt from "Rat Beach"]He watches as ambulances and trucks arrive on the beach from Okinawa, full of the injured and the dead. Hopelessness and fear threaten to paralyze the young officer. Styron's words put the reader right into his shoes.
Such thoughts were torment. As I lay on my cot, "The Pocket Book of Verse" would slip from my hand, and fear--vile, cold fear--would steal through my flesh like some puzzling sickness. I actually felt my extremities grow numb, as if the blood had drained from my toes and fingers, and the sensation caused me both alarm and shame. [excerpt from "Rat Beach"]The narrator finds a bit of comfort in the common bond and camaraderie of his fellow soldiers, and yet feels separate from them, wondering if they too feel the same fear he does. They talk about everything, sharing intimidate details, but never about their fears or inner turmoil about the war and they are about to walk into.
Finally word comes down that there will, in fact, be an invasion. The details are a secret, however, even from the officers who will have to be prepared for the upcoming battle. The closer the moment comes, the greater his fear. It haunts his dreams and waking hours. I could feel the terror he felt so clearly as I read.
Styron's writing is beautiful and raw. He captures well the time and place, but what is most striking is his portrayal of the nameless soldier. This story makes me want to run out and get everything William Styron wrote in his lifetime.
Have you read a short story lately? I'd love to hear about it! Be sure and drop by Ready When You Are, C.B. for Short Story Sunday & The Book Mine Set for Short Story Monday, the hosts for this event.
© 2009, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
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