Saturday, July 18, 2009

Short Story Saturday: Rat Beach by William Styron

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.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. The only thing I've read by Styron is The Confessions of Nat Turner, but he has so much out there that looks good. Including this story!


  2. Thanks for the link, I'll check it out.

  3. Well, it is embarrassing to admit, but I haven't read anything by Styron, although I did see the movie, Sophie's Choice. The short story sounds so good that maybe I'll make that correction and see what I can find at the library when I get home. Thanks for a great review, Wendy!

  4. I always seem to say, ok, I am only going to spend 5 minutes on this website, or only spend 10 minutes looking at this, and then 2 hours later, I am still reading or looking at the same thing...

  5. I'm usually not crazy about war books, but UI could probably manage a short story. Thanks for the link!

  6. Lezlie - Did you like The Confessions of Nat Turner? I'm only vaguely familiar with that one, I'm afraid. I ended up buying a copy of Sophie's Choice while out and about today. I couldn't resist after reading this short story. :-)

    Angie - You're welcome. I hope you like the story.

    Jenclair - You've done more than I have by just watching the movie, Jenclair. So don't feel embarrassed. To be honest, I didn't realize who the author was exactly until I googled his name after reading the story. Talk about embarrassing. :-)

    Kristie - Exactly! That happens to me all too often. Sometimes we just get pulled in and before we know it, quite a bit of time has passed.

    John - Thank you for stopping in! If you do read the story, I hope you will like it.

    As I was browsing through the titles of short stories on the New Yorker website, I was thinking how short stories might be a good way to sample authors I am not too familiar with--or even genres and types of fiction I might not otherwise read--either for lack of interest or having tried it but not really cared for it in long form. You never can tell when you might find an exception.

  7. Literary Feline ~ I did like The Confessions of Nat Turner. Here is a link to my post on it:


  8. I've been reading Styron since his first book, "Lie Down in Darkness" (1950). I live in Tidewater Va., near where he grew up--in Newport News. in "Rat Beach" he brings all of his writing skills to bear, along with his experience in the Marines. I'd say it's some of his best work, although short. It's up there with "The Red Badge of Courage," as I see it. I look forward to his new anthology of Marine stories, "Suicide Run," to be published in October, says The New Yorker. Maybe it helps younger generations to hear about the savagery of war--as a deterrent for future conflicts. Not much to justify writing and publishing them otherwise.

  9. I have posted a lengthy review of "The Suicide Run" on my blog:

    Please don't begin your Styron experience with this book--"Sophie's Choice" is the place to begin, or "The Confessions of Nat Turner." His slim collection "A Tidewater Morning" is a good way to just put your toe in, so to speak.

  10. Chris - Thank you so much for the link to your review. After reading the one story, I ran out and bought a copy of Sophie's Choice. I look forward to reading it.


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