At the age of 13, Alexandra Styron intercepted the bound galley of her father's soon-to-be famous novel, Sophie's Choice, and found it "unbelievably boring." In her memoir, Reading My Father (Scribner, 2011), she says the vocabulary was far too difficult for her, and she didn't finish the novel until 27 years later, just before her father died in 2006. By then she had already started her book about him, in which she reminisces about the family farmstead in Connecticut. Her parents lived there for 50 years, hosting parties that attracted luminaries such as Norman Mailer, Bill Clinton and Leonard Bernstein.
Life with William Styron was not always blissful. Prone to melancholy when sober and rage when he drank, "my father inspired fear and loathing in his children more often than it is comfortable to admit." Trivial irritations could "pull the pin on my father's temper," she says, detonating an explosion of invective, insult and abuse. She lived in a world of "privilege and irregularity."
This articulate and perceptive memoir manages to be neither too bitter nor too sweet. Rather than worshiping her father or excoriating him, Alexandra provides a portrait of complex love for a difficult father. She also provides a harrowing look behind the scenes at the events her father recounted in what many consider his greatest work — Darkness Visible, his 1990 chronicle of the depression that almost destroyed him. His "cloven-footed madness," probably linked to a childhood spent watching his mother die of breast cancer, struck when Styron was 60 and left him incapable of work or simple civility. It recurred 15 years later, accompanying him to his death — a decline that Alexandra captures with unflinching descriptions that, like all good writing, show rather than tell the reader the source of her sorrow.
William Styron was a legendary drinker who seemed to incorporate liquor into work and play, happy times and sad. So in his honor a discussion of his daughter's book should include something sweet — for Alexandra clearly loved this difficult and complex man — but also something alcoholic.
Since William Styron was a proud Southerner, the liquor might as well be bourbon, although rum or Jack Daniels also provide a surprisingly apt ingredient in "boozy brownies."
If liquor and chocolate seem incompatible to you, try adding the alcohol of your choice — bourbon, rum, Jack Daniels or a sweet liquor — to strong coffee. The result will be a dessert in itself, although it would work well with store-bought sweets.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings.