"Lie Down in Darkness" was the debut novel of William Styron, first published in 1951, when Styron was only 26 years old. The novel is a work of social realism, told in a variety of prose styles, detailing the alcoholism and dysfunction of an upper-Middle Class family in Virginia in the 1930s and 1940s. The book was critically acclaimed at the time of its release, although it is today less famous than Styron's later works, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice.
To discuss this book, I will have to reveal almost the entire plot, so there will be spoilers below.
The book centers around the Loftis family, Milton, the father who is a lawyer and a functional alcoholic, Helen, his embittered wife who tries to "keep up appearances" in the country club social life of the day, Peyton, their beautiful but troubled daughter, and Maudie, a developmentally disabled daughter who passes away due to her condition. The story opens with preparations for Peyton's funeral. She has recently died of suicide, and her parents are making an attempt to attend her funeral. The book's seven chapters are told in two parts: the first part of the chapter happens during the day of the funeral, while the second is a flashback showing the growth of the family's troubles. The family dysfunction is one that is probably familiar to us in the present day, but which might have been more novel (and controversial) at the time of publication: the father is having an affair and is quietly abusing alcohol, while his wife, while remaining "moral", punishes him for his indiscretion. The daughter, Peyton, forms a relationship with her father that might be termed, today, covert incest, with the two of them forming a front against the mother. The family maintains a front of normality, until Peyton gets married, moves to New York City, and repeats her father's habits of alcoholism and adultery. This core story is interspersed with portrayals of the society at the time, ranging from the serious to the comic, and often both. One of the book's most interesting scenes, both in terms of the book's plot and as a historical document, is were Milton Loftis drunkenly searches for his daughter at a college football game, which is told with a keen understanding of both what it is like to be drunk in public and how football formed a social ritual in the south. The amount of detail and nuance that Styron put into the book is outstanding considering that he was in his mid-20s when he wrote it.
One of the main things I noticed about this book was how modern the tone sounded. This book was published over sixty years ago, but despite a few incidentals (a cab ride in New York City costing 50 cents), it reads like a relevant, contemporary work. In style and substance, the sophistication with which the book presents both the psychological experience of family dysfunction, and the social context that allows it to continue, this book seems to still be insightful and relevant.
William Styron only wrote five novels, but each one of them was a good book and of historical importance. This book should probably be remembered as much as the works of William Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe.