HAVANAS IN CAMELOT: PERSONAL ESSAYS, by William Styron, Random House, 164 pages, $23.

William Styron, a Virginia native who passed away in 2006, was one of America's most gifted novelists. His first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness," was published in 1951 and is still widely read in literary circles.

Perhaps his best known book is "The Confessions of Nat Turner" (1967), in which Styron imagined the inner thoughts of the historical figure, Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.

This one won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968.

Finally, "Sophie's Choice" (1979) represented a Polish Holocaust survivor and her two men, Nathan and Stingo. The fact that Styron's work was unflinchingly dark is connected to the fact that the novelist suffered severe depression for essentially his entire life. Nevertheless, his ability to create strong characters and tell their story with a beautiful narrative style is probably unsurpassed.

In an amazingly well-crafted collection of 14 his essays, "Havanas in Camelot," Styron touches on a variety of personal topics with humor and delicious depth. Some were previously published in such publications as The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Vanity Fair and some are published here for the first time.

His subjects are diverse, including a reminiscence of his brief friendship with John F. Kennedy. Styron was so fascinated by Kennedy's propensity for smoking good cigars that he gave up cigarettes and took up cigars himself.

His recollection of his attendance of the inauguration of French President Francois Mitterand, a lover of literature, is a wonderful inside view. Through his memoirs of Truman Capote, James Baldwin and Terry Southern, the reader learns even more about Styron the writer.

He draws a cocky but delightful comparison between Mark Twain and himself that is enormously persuasive — and his description of his daily walks with his dog is simple and refreshing, as is a blessing on his summer home in Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

"I'll Have to Ask Indianapolis" is a cheerful and funny tale of a professor who helped him get his first novel published by an Indiana-based firm, by saying "I'll have to ask Indianapolis." In "Moviegoer," Styron reminisces about his propensity as a youth for seeing a plethora of movies, and then unaccountably becoming a writer.

"Too Late for Conversion or Prayer" is a marvelous diatribe about the faults of the prostate gland. "Fessing Up" is a very enjoyable, self-abrogating narrative about the process by which he and a group of "entirely white, predominantly male, and somewhat doddering Modern Library editorial board" members capriciously selected the 100 best novels written in English in the 20th century.

Styron's writing is the kind that emotionally envelops the reader while constantly challenging his/her intellect. The collection is an undeniable gem that may well inspire most readers to find at least two or three of his novels and read them with abandon.


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