Set This House on Fire, William Styron, Random House, 1960, 507 pp
I read this as part of my Big Fat Reading Project and also because ever since I read Sophie's Choice so many years ago and had my mind completely rearranged, I vowed to read all of Styron's novels. In a way, it's a good thing he didn't write too many because each one is such a heavy dose of human anguish and Faulkner-like rambling complete with long philosophical passages run through some character's mouth. Reading too much Styron in a row could induce suicidal thoughts at least, maybe worse.
In fact, Set This House on Fire does include a possible suicide and an artist trying to drink himself to death. After reading The Bone People just two weeks earlier, another novel full of fall-down-drunk scenes was almost too much.
I am having trouble here writing a coherent review. Possibly a certain incoherence in the novel was contagious. So I'll give a little plot summary and then mention some observations.
Peter Leverett had been doing the ex-patriot thing in Paris (it is the late 1950s and the Marshall Plan created plenty of jobs for Americans in Europe in those days.) On his way back to the States he stops in Sambuco, a small Italian coastal town, to see an old friend from boarding school named Mason Flagg. Within two days, Peter has hit a pedestrian who ends up in a coma; Mason Flagg is dead; Cass Kinsolving, the drinker, is involved up to his inebriated eyeballs in the death of Flagg; and Peter finds himself embroiled as only an innocent bystander can be.
Where Styron fell down is in the structure. Peter Leverett, at the beginning of the book, has invited himself to visit Kinsolving some years after the Sambuco incident, making the entire novel a back story. The intimations of violence and madness hinted at in the first few pages are not fully revealed until almost the end of 500 pages, requiring a large amount of patience in the reader as well as the attention span so missing in our current society.
By the time this somewhat lame attempt at a murder mystery is fully solved (and mind you, Kinsolving who knows what really happened, was drunk and blacking out during most of the incidents) I hardly cared anymore who had done what. Except that I kept reading to find out.
You see, I just cannot write succinctly about what became a tangled, endless, reflective story involving the examination of so many heavy themes: evil, domination, art, redemption, love, and violence.
Putting Set This House on Fire into the context of 1960 novels, there are certain parallel topics. Irwin Shaw's Two Weeks in Another Town featured an American in Italy mixed up with the movie business. There was a whole side story in Styron's book involving movie business folks.
Another recurring theme that year was young men trying to make sense of the late 1950s drive for affluence, the power of business versus the relevance of art. Two examples are Ourselves to Know by John O'Hara and Rabbit Run by John Updike. As I come to the end of my 1960 reading list, it turns out to have been quite the pivotal year in literature. Styron was clearly immersed in the thinking of the times as he wrote his novel.
One last observation: Peter Leverett serves almost completely as a sounding board and observer. Stingo served that function in Sophie's Choice as did Jack Culver in The Long March.
Despite all these quibbles, not once did I consider abandoning the book. I was impelled by wanting to know what happened in Sambuco even while I felt impatient to find out. Styron made me care whether or not Kinsolving got the redemption he sought. This is in the end a good dark Southern saga, though it probably appeals only to a certain kind of reader, of which I am one.
(Set This House on Fire is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)