On this All Souls Day, we salute the passing of an erstwhile neighbor of the CrazyStable: William Styron, novelist and chronicler of the battle of mind and soul against depression and despair. Styron's fame rests on a handful of towering works like The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice, and his late-life memoir Darkness Visible. But here in Flatbush we mourn him for a curious and particular reason: His narrative gifts cast a ghostly illumination into the recent but vanished past, just 200 feet from our front door. We call it the Sophie's Choice connection, and I was working on an entry about it to share with you here this week. Now it will be my offering on the Day of the Dead (on which Styron left this world, surely a novelistic touch he would have appreciated).
By all accounts, Styron's masterpiece was a roman a clef inspired by his early postwar years as a struggling writer, who becomes the restless narrator Stingo:“But I simply could no longer afford either the Manhattan prices or the rent—even single rooms were becoming beyond my means—and so I had to search the classified ads for accommodations in Brooklyn. And that is how, one fine day in June, I got out of the Church Avenue station of the BMT with my Marine Corps seabag and suitcase, took several intoxicating breaths of the pickle-fragrant air of Flatbush, and walked down blocks of gently greening sycamores to the rooming house of Mrs. Yetta Zimmerman.”
It is the unquestioned lore of our block that Styron lived during these years in a once-elegant corner house two lots down from our place. The house was abandoned for years and finally burned, say the old-timers (one of whom recalled salvaging a beautiful doorknob from the front door); by the time we moved here, it was a vacant lot, and then a few years ago this beige "semi-attached" architectural gem was its sad replacement. (The roofline and chimney of the CrazyStable are just visible at the very far right. Wouldn't Styron be pleased by the sign, "DOCTORS OFFICE," whose apostrophe seems to have given up in confusion and wandered off...)
Our secret delight in the book is Styron's evocation of our neighborhood when it was "the kingdom of the Jews," as Stingo wryly observes, with Church Avenue a place of delis, rye-bread-and-challah bakeries, and the click of mah-jongg tiles. Nowadays, the air is more likely to be fragrant with roti, dal and rice-and-peas than pickles and brisket. In our sector, almost every trace of a once-thriving Jewish culture has vanished under the sifting sands of demographic change and immigration, with the exception of a few handsome temples. There are burgeoning young families of very Orthodox Jews deeper into Brooklyn's heartland, but the remnants of Sophie's generation are getting too old even to sit out on the benches along Ocean Parkway. If there are any number-tattoo'd wrists left in Brooklyn, they are increasingly likely to be resting atop the bedcovers in a nursing home, I fear, and their owners' stories (except for the endless font of imagined ones, like Styron/Sophie's) will disappear with them.
The connection gets even closer; Stingo goes on to describe our view:
“Sitting down, I lifted my gaze and looked out the window and was suddenly made aware of another element which must have worked on my subconscious and caused me to be drawn to this place. It was such a placid and agreeable view I had of the park, this corner known as the Parade Grounds. Old sycamore trees and maples shaded the sidewalks at the edge of the park, and the dappled sunlight aglow on the gently sloping meadow of the Parade Grounds gave the setting a serene, almost pastoral quality. It presented a striking contrast to remoter parts of the neighborhood. Only short blocks away traffic flowed turbulently on Flatbush Avenue, a place intensely urban, cacophonous, cluttered, swarming with jangled souls and nerves; but here the arboreal green and the pollen-hazy light, the infrequent trucks and cars, the casual pace of the few strollers at the park’s border all created the effect of an outlying area in a modest Southern city—Richmond perhaps, or Chattanooga or Columbia. I felt a sharp pang of homesickness, and abruptly wondered what in God’s name was I doing here in the unimaginable reaches of Brooklyn, an ineffective and horny Calvinist among all these Jews?”
The prospect today is still verdant (thanks now to artificial turf), but gone are the days of "infrequent" cars and trucks; Caton Avenue is a congested pseudo-highway with semi's bouncing past at all hours. Still, it's possible--when the Parade Grounds are vacant of soccer players--to get precisely the vibe Styron conjures up.
When Sophie's Choice was made into a movie (long before our move here), it was partially filmed at a house on Rugby Road in the Prospect Park South historic district, where locals still recall Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline shooting this scene on the roof. Hollywood painted the house pink for its role, then painted it back to its original color. Here's why:
“Yetta Zimmerman’s house may have been the most open-heartedly monochromatic structure in Brooklyn, if not in all of New York. A large rambling wood and stucco house of the nondescript variety erected, I should imagine, sometime before or just after the First World War, it would have faded into the homely homogeneity of other large nondescript dwellings that bordered on Prospect Park had it not been for its striking—its overwhelming—pinkness. From its second-floor dormers and cupolas to the frames of its basement-level windows the house was unrelievedly pink…The floors, walls, ceilings and even most of he furniture of each hallway and room varied slightly in hue—due to an uneven paint job—from the tender rose of fresh lox to a more aggressive bubble-gum coral, but everywhere there was pink, pink admitting rivalry from no other color..."
"Large nondescript dwellings," indeed. But what inspired Styron to make Yetta's place pink? None of the informal block historians recalled his actual digs being lox-colored inside or out. But there is one house nearby, a rambling ex-boarding house, whose residents have discovered a ghastly shade of Pepto-Bismol pink under the pea-soup green and grungy white layers in at least half its rooms. Yes, the CrazyStable. We were never pink on the outside (in fact, no one seemed to have painted our blue shingles since the place was built). But given the evidence of our interior paint-chip history, it is not impossible to imagine a young author walking home from his miserable job at McGraw-Hill and passing, each night, a nearby rooming house, some of whose rooms gave off a libidinous, roseate glow. Already dedicated to his craft, the callow young man might well have thought, "I'll use that someday."
That, anyway, is my fancy. I always dreamt of contacting Styron to ask him about his time here, on our corner, but couldn't quite bring myself to bother him with it; his struggles with his physical and emotional health were well-known, and I feared he might think I had reduced his haunting tale to a walking-tour curiosity. Now, of course, I'll never know, but ultimately, it doesn't seem to matter. Sophie, Nathan, and Stingo, conceived here in a young man's fervent imagination, will probably live as long as books are read and movies rented. That's neighborly enough.
Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed
through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.