November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

by William Styron

The Virginia Tidewater, a stretch of land located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, is the setting of this collection of three stories originally published in Esquire magazine between 1978 and 1987.

As he did in his 1979 novel, Sophie’s Choice, Styron has reshaped personal experience and the results, while not as ambitious, are still compelling. His narrator is Paul Whitehurst, a man whose memories are lit by the “incandescence” of youth.

In “Love Day,” Paul is a young Marine aboard a troopship sailing toward Okinawa in 1945. Bored by the company of other officers, Paul casts his mind back to his father, who built Navy ships in the 1930s, a job that helped guide the country out of a Depression and, in Paul’s mind, into a war. The memory allows Styron to paint a picture of homesickness and fear in the face of empty bravura.

Paul is 10 years younger in “Shadrach” and playing marbles in a neighbor’s yard when a stranger makes a sudden appearance. He’s a former slave, a dying man who’s walked from Alabama to Tidewater to be buried where he was born; in doing so, Paul believes the old man is attempting to recapture what might have been “the one pure, untroubled moment in his life.”

Styron’s real achievement is the title story where Paul relives the night and the morning his mother died. He’s 13, and here in the summer heat, amid the sycamores, the electric fans, the scent of coffee and warm bread, Styron evokes her inexorable pain, the father’s helplessness, and the boy’s angry bewilderment.

No matter the intensity of the moment, Styron’s style is impeccably genteel. While providing a nostalgic glimpse of America, he writes with lyrical urgency and reveals a deep love for the constant ebb and flow, the comic and tragic vicissitudes of life. (Random House $17)

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