I just finished this profound, beautiful, satisfying novel by William Styron, which won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize. In 1831 Nat Turner, a Virginia slave and preacher, led the only sustained, effective slave revolt in American history, yet few records of the event offer much detail. The only one! After years of solemn, secret planning, into which the reader is methodically and eagerly enlisted, over the course of two days Nat and some 75 followers rampaged the countryside, laying waste to 55 white souls of all ages, including women and babies, before they were caught and, of course, hanged. Fifty-five cold-blooded murders plus dozens of wounded makes Charles Manson look like Ken Lay! Styron attempts to penetrate the mind of Turner to uncover his motive and psychology and succeeds to a considerable degree, in my opinion.
The book is told in first person, most of it directly by the chained Nat awaiting execution in his cold, dank cell, the rest of it summarized in dialogue with his lawyer, a neat way to get across a lot of plot points in a hurry while maintaining scene and drama. Story begins with a vision Nat has of an inscrutable, white building high on a sea cliff -- his version of freedom and glory (he has never seen the sea). Then back to the cell, and we get what happened in dialogue with his lawyer, a befuddled white man assigned to the case. The second part of the book retraces Nat's remarkable life story in recollections, slowly, gorgeously laying the groundwork for his religious convictions that lead to his plan to plunder the countryside that has served as the backdrop for the unspeakable horrors endured by his fellow slaves. Particularly effective is Styron's use of Old Testament martyrs and prophets who rose up against the Egyptians and whose fiery rhetoric lights a blaze in Nat's mind that cannot be put out. This leads right up to the climax, which the reader has been prepared for and can't wait to read, and the scene where he storms his master's bedroom does not disappoint. The deneoument brings us back to Nat's final meeting with his lawyer on the morning of his execution and his bidding goodbye to his last living comrade, led past Nat's cell, crying out that it will be all right, that it's "nuthin'!" The hangmen's call from behind the door to "Come!" becomes in Nat's mind the voice of the Lord at last, the Lord who has, for years, abandoned him and tested his will by His silence. Nat's vision of the mysterious white building on the hill becomes a metaphor for the peace of the finally imminent Afterlife.
Interesting is how Nat's retrospective first-person prose is simply scrumptious, lavish, almost insanely wonderful, but when he speaks, his words come out in the same impoverished dialect as the other slave characters. No excuse or explanation is given for this discrepancy -- a reminder of just how much you can get away with provided you set the standard from the get-go and never look back. Styron's prose, which I had only encountered once before, in his terrific novella The Long March, is what I would call transparent. Clear, perfect, to be devoured compulsively as you think "he can't possibly keep this up" and he does. When I read Styron's natural kinsmen such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Richard Yates, I think as I read, "Goodness gracious but this son of a bitch is freaking talented with words, and he clearly knows it," but when reading this book, I found myself thinking, "Goodness gracious but this son of a bitch is freaking talented with words, and he's sparing the reader the hint of his own swaggering ego to boot." Hence, tranparency. The lily rendered as it is, no gilding required. Hence, my excitement upon emerging from this book is partly the prospect of his other novels, waiting for me in used bookstores and eBay auctions and garage sales.
Styron took a lot of heat for his matter-of-fact treatment of Nat's character, mainly from black leaders who denounced it as perpetuating the stereotype of the sex-obsessed, violent black man. Maybe they had a point. It was 1968 after all. Then again, Nat's natural development, morally and sexually, was so warped and twisted by even the mundane practical restraints of slavery, as to supply reason enough for me. And the man presided over such unprecedented and widespread carnage -- it must be remembered that he was a mass murderer, no matter his skin color. Yet, amazingly, and probably significantly, Nat himself committed just a single murder -- that of a white girl whose beauty and sincere kindness toward him somehow overboiled his frustrated rage more than all the cruelty of his various masters and their surrogates. Finally, though, and most important to a writer, Nat is written with such humanity and compassion and courage and honesty and wit that, in the usual sense, it hardly matters what he did -- the reader is with him till the end. "Write unlikeable characters," Ethan told us. "The reader will always like them." James Baldwin had a different take on the book when it came out: "He [Styron] has begun the common history -- ours." Achieving a common history is something Jim McPherson often said should be our goal: "We must develop what Ralph Ellison called the omni-American sensibility." Jim also once said, "There should be no limits whatever to the writer's imagination." Amen!
Anyway, just wanted to sound off on yet another book from decades ago that was fresh as a new penny to me and inspiring as all get out.