Selected Letters of William Styron edited by Rose Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin; Random House, 671 pages ($40.) THE literary letters collection of the year, by many miles. Peter Matthiessen’s dustflap blurb doesn’t hyperbolize: “Brilliant, passionate, eloquent, insightful, moving, dirty-minded, indignant and hilarious, they accumulate power in the reading, becoming in themselves a work of literature.” With all of that, there is a worrisome trend in the past few years – posthumous collections of works of great writers, whether previously published or letters or journals, whose formative influences were the writers’ surviving family members. In the posthumous collection by John Leonard, that meant an omnibus from the Leonard family that should have been twice as large.

Here we have Rose Styron listed first as the editor of the letters of the man who wrote “Lie Down in Darkness,” “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Darkness Visible.” It goes without saying that no one can match a widow for gathering letters from a husband’s correspondents. But Rose Styron candidly admits here, on seeing them, some temerity at “prying into a secret life of a man I’d lived with and loved for 54 not uncomplicated years. The ‘secret life’ wasn’t a different life – it was our life.”

Even with a co-editor how can we not suspect that in a “selected” letters some easily ran afoul of the feelings of a woman who shared a writer’s life for 54 years? Even the greatest 54-year partnerships have cracks in the cement.

What is undeniable is that Styron was a great – truly irresistible – letter writer, wildly and savagely readable and trustworthy, even in idiosyncratic judgment, whether confiding to James Jones the size of child JFK Jr.’s private parts or nemesis Norman Mailer’s halitosis problems. Here is Styron in 1960 writing to John P. Marquand Jr. about meeting William S. Burroughs: “He is an absolutely astonishing presence, with the grim mad face of Savanarola and a hideously tailored 1925 s----colored overcoat and scarf to match and a gray fedora pulled down tight around his ears. He reminded me of nothing so much as a mean old Lesbian and is a fantastic reactionary. … He is as mad as a hatter.” Terrific book.

– Jeff Simon