"The least important things in a novel are its made-up parts, for true imagination lies not in plot invention but in the realization of actuality," wrote Peter Shaw, reviewing Frank Conroy's 1967 memoir, Stop-Time, for Commentary. "Novels that depend on amazing twists or fantastic characters have always been in the second class; the great writers specialize in reality. Thus James Joyce's Ulysses, which triumphs in imagining the actual details of its hero's day-to-day existence, is without 'interesting' characters and may be said to have no plot at all. And the recent ['60s] popularity of autobiography and the 'non-fiction novel' seems to be part of a new attempt to get back to recording reality. But where Frank Conroy's contemporaries have tried to deal with important real events — a slave rebellion, a murder, the author's own interesting life — Conroy in his youthful autobiography has had the originality to deal with a life absolutely lacking in public significance: he has not met famous or interesting people, witnessed important events, or become himself so famous that an account of his early life would be an event eagerly awaited. And yet, because he does perfectly what he sets out to do, Conroy's book will be lasting and significant."
And so it is, in a class with the other great cultural bookmarks of the late-to-middle 20th century, from Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself; to Jack Kerouac's On the Road; to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, to Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless...a portrait of youth at bay, written at a time when sensitive young people from James Dean to Stephen Hawking seemed to become more aware of the fragility of their own individuality, measured against a kind of looming Orwellianism. Conroy, a Haverford grad and Director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a literary lab which he helped make as famous as Elia Kazan's and Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio in New York, died April 6 of colon cancer: "He loved young people," says his second wife, Maggie Conroy. "Teaching writing the way he did was like an extension of his own writing and music-playing [Conroy earned money for years as a jazz pianist]. The young people made him feel hopeful..."
A key, perhaps, to Conroy's oeuvre. The great criticism of him, voiced off-record by even one of his ex-colleagues in Iowa, was that Frank never delivered on his youthful promise: "After Stop-Time — which everyone agreed was wonderful — he became something of a marginal figure in American letters, despite his great contributions at the Workshop," the former acquaintance says. "The subsequent work — Body and Soul — meant to be his big book, showed the straining toward , well, bigness [like Mailer's Ancient Evenings.] After Stop-Time, 18 years went by before he produced Midair, which was a book of short stories. Body and Soul, his one novel, didn't appear until 1993!" In addition, Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On, a luminous book of essays published in 2002, and Time and Tide, another non-fiction book about Nantucket, where the author lived and played piano for many years, appeared in 2004.
But Conroy, in an extraordinary conversation with Lacy Crawford in NarrativeMagazine.com recently, has said that he never planned a career as a writer, and indicated that he wrote Stop-Time as a way of purging his emotionally riven childhood, and that he thought he might do "one more good book," but wasn't on a career trajectory — as many more recent writers have been. Conroy, like Giuseppe di Lampedusa (The Leopard)— or, it could be argued more dangerously, J. D. Salinger — was an "amateur" in the highest sense...like James Agee and Celine, he seemed compelled to tell a natural truth, rather than evolve plots, characters, and tend his own professional garden. According to one source, he accepted advances from editors and publishers for books that never materialized, but that meant simply that they weren't ready to appear: "I was able to write [Stop-Time] because I'd read so much. I was years into [Haverford] before I was assigned a book I hadn't read. In the beginning I read to escape my circumstances" [mentally-ill father, difficult mother and step-father]. I absorbed...the conventions, rules and rhythms of good prose. When I read Orwell, I couldn't believe it, it was so beautiful...To write Stop-Time, I had to go well past any imaginative boundaries I'd set for myself...A 16- or 17-year-old can read it [now], and it doesn't feel dated, because it avoids any chronological events [in the culture of the time], which puts a lot of pressure on the reader's perception...Children live in a world without time."
While at Haverford, Conroy studied with Professor John Ashmead, and declared him a major influence, but in a way that seems divorced from the usual "literary" relationship: Kim Benston, currently Gummere Professor of English here, singles out Conroy's "strong grain of...voice, [his] dead-on honesty and authority, the canny means of packing sophistication into blunt vernacular expression. That's what makes reading his interviews nearly as special as his books, which were famously...praised for their gripping trustworthiness. When you listen to Frank Conroy's voice in those conversations you understand how deeply he understood how that aura of integrity came from the language itself, which he wielded with tough-minded clarity." Benston also praises Conroy's later work: [In] "The stories in Midair...many are so chiseled, crisp, artfully designed...that the reader supplies affect as the narration hones some element of 'the real.' Genuine artistry there, and craft."
A writer then, who placed communication over literature. Who wrote as much "non-fiction" as "fiction." Who as a jazz improvisor, perhaps felt the state of being on the brink, forced by life to improvise, was necessary in order to create at all, like a jazz pianist who mixes Scarlatti with Coltrane, Bach, and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones...matching modes against the reality of the moment, and taking what he needed: "...a novel is made of what's discovered in the act of writing it," he told Lacy Crawford. "If I get stuck, I just put the problem out of my mind, and do other things...Often I don't know that it's resolved until I go back to work."
A plangent example, from the sometimes-maligned Body and Soul:
The boy walked over and faced him. He received a glass ball about the size of a peach pit attached to a string.
"Hold it like this." Fredericks also had a glass ball. He held the string between thumb and forefinger, the ball dangling motionless below. The boy did likewise. "You will feel there is an attraction between these pieces of glass," Fredericks said. "Like magnetism, even though they are glass."
Fredericks reached out and pushed Claude's glass ball in such a way that it swung in a circle. "Do not move your hand...Remain...still and let the ball swing. All by itself."
Then, very gently, Fredericks swung his own ball so that its circle came within two or three inches of the path of Claude's.
"Now , keep still and watch."
When, after a moment, the orbits of the two pieces of glass brought them near each other, Claude both saw and felt his ball move slightly out of its orbit toward the other one. . . quite distinct. A little jump.
"You see?" Fredericks said...
"Yes." Claude was amazed. "Magic. Is it magic?"
Fredericks took the glass balls and put them back on his desk. "Some people would have you believe so, but it isn't. It only feels like magic."
"Well, what is it then? What made it do that?"
"You did...Listen to me Claude...It's because you believed...You understand the implications? Anything you can imagine, you can play. Concentrate, believe, and your fingers will do it."
"My God," Claude whispered.
"A very cool guy," concluded the journalist David Halberstam, an old drinking buddy from Elaine's. "A great hipster."
Connie Brothers, who runs day-to-day operations for the Iowa Writers' Workshop, said only: "I worked with him for 18 years. I loved him. I don't have any other comment."
Click here to listen to Frank Conroy talking about jazz and writing with Wisconsin Public Radio's Michael Feldman (2002).