When I start reading something by William Styron, I am stricken with the same surprised amazement I feel when I encounter writing by Philip Roth or Don DeLillo or Joan Didion or William Faulkner. The shock of style, of a distinctive, idiosyncratic, enveloping style of writing that invests the meaning and events of the piece with significance, artistry, and the author’s personality. This is the feeling that came to me in the first few paragraphs of Styron’s short novel The Long March (1956).
The novel begins in a North Carolina military encampment of Marine reservists who have been called up for duty seven years after the end of World War II. The Korean War is the reason they’ve been mustered. Two major events stand at the center of the novel: an accidental pair of explosions that kill eight reservists and a 36-mile march called for by a colonel who wants to enforce the rigor of his reservist Marines. Most of the reservists have been called to duty from the middle of their domestic lives, they’re approaching middle age, they have families and jobs, and their plans don’t include a return to service.
The main character is a Marine captain named Culver and another captain named Mannix whom he’s become friends with in their six weeks of reserve duty. One point of the novel is to consider skeptically how Marines are always supposed to be Marines, even if they have been decommissioned for seven years. When called to duty from private lives where they were free to set their own course, they are now expected to submit to authority and accept their place as integers in a complex equation of soldiers and machines and military hierarchies.
Culver and Mannix see themselves as individuals. They chafe in different ways against the reimposition of authority. Culver comes to realize that to the colonel in command the reservists are just cogs in a machine. The men who died in the explosions were unfortunate casualties. What is important to the colonel is his ability to impose his will, to burnish his reputation, to display his ability to move large groups of men in one direction or another, in a grueling and pointless march. Their individual lives are of no importance.