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Early Self-Portrait


by Frank Conroy

(Viking; $5.95)

Frank Conroy's first book, Stop-time, is an autobiography, published at the age of 31. His life, though somewhat unconventional, has not been highly extraordinary or unusually exciting, and it has certainly not been celebrated; yet his account of it is extraordinary and exciting, and it will, I hope, become celebrated.

When a writer's first book is a novel, it is often an autobiographical act of vindication. He wants to show the world how it has undervalued him, how his parents or teachers or girls or employers did not see his sensitivity and worth. This sort of novel is, in a way, a substitute for firm religious faith: if a young man believed thoroughly that someone knew the truth about him, he might feel less compulsion to prove it to his contemporaries. But Conroy's book is quite a different case. Here is a young writer (and he is clearly a writer, not just someone who has written a book) who has begun his career with straight autobiography. The impulse was not toward justification or dramatization, not even toward drama (although very little of it sags); the impulse was to illuminate and to be illuminated, to recapture and understand the successive senses of growth and departure, inheritance and loss. In short, Conroy's impulse was more that of the poet than the novelist, crystallization of experience more than utilization.

The book opens and closes with two very brief passages in the "present"--the young author living in England with his wife. They seem to me dispensable as framework, and besides they are the only self-dramatizing pages. Otherwise it is simply Conroy's story--not always in strict chronology and with some fluttering of tenses--from early memories until he entered college. His father was mentally ill and disappeared in effect when the author was three or four (although there were visits). A handsome New Orleans man of French descent, named Jean, came to live with Frank and his mother and his older sister, Alison; his mother. Dagmar, subsequently married him. Jean served as Frank's father and, since there was no blood tie, he could also be an older brother.

They lived in New York and in a house they built for themselves in Florida. All kinds of odd jobs were worked at, including weekend caretaking by Dagmar and Jean at a mental hospital in Connecticut. Frank discovered nature in Florida and sex in Central Park. In mid-adolescence he ran away from New York, as far as Baltimore. After some schooling in Manhattan he was sent to an international high school in Denmark (his mother is Danish), then returned to enter an American college, which is where the book ends. There are eccentric escapades, like the section in which Jean brings another woman into the apartment while Dagmar is visiting in Denmark, or Alison's period of mental breakdown, but most of the incidents are, in themselves, familiar stuff.

What makes them fascinating is the way that Conroy has remembered them--how he was at the time, what they did to him then--and how he has now set them down. His prose is lean yet colorful, the servant of an imagination that insists on capturing reality in several simultaneous senses. Here is the Connecticut cabin near the hospital, where they stayed on weekends:

     Every Friday the cheap padlock was opened, every Friday 
     I stepped inside. A room so dim my blood turned gray, so 
     cold I knew no human heart had ever beaten there every line, 
     every article of furniture, every scrap of paper on the floor, 
     every burned-out match in a saucer filling me with desolation, 
     depopulating me.

Here he is loafing around a Florida gas station:

    Is it the mindlessness of childhood that opens up the world? 
    Today nothing happens in a gas station. I'm eager to leave, 
    to get where I'm going, and the station, like some huge paper 
    cutout, or a Hollywood set, is simply a facade. But at thirteen, 
    sitting with my back against the wall, it was a marvelous place 
    to be. The delicious smell of gasoline, the cars coming and going, 
    the free air hose, the half-heard voices buzzing in the background-- 
    these things hung musically in the air, filling me with a sense of 
    well-being. In ten minutes my psyche would be topped up like the 
    tanks of the automobiles.

There is wit. Describing his crazy father:

    He had a tendency to take off his trousers and throw them out the 
    window. (I harbor some secret admiration for this.) At a moment's 
    notice he could blow a thousand dollars at Abercrombie and Fitch 
    and disappear into the Northwest to become an outdoorsman. 
    He spent an anxious few weeks convinced that I was fated to become 
    a homosexual. I was six months old.

There is witty retrospective observation:

    [My mother] didn't share Jean's enthusiasm for clearly recognizable 
    people, people with specialties. All Jean's pals had some--dog-eared 
    passport through life--one was an inventor, another a chess expert, 
    another simply rebellious--sad, lonely men looking for some place 
    to get out of the cold. Jean met them in cafeterias."

There is, by and large, no sentimentality. For example, on his runaway expedition, he meets two highly engaging people, a singing truck driver and a Travelers Aid woman. Conroy simply lets them behave, speak, and leave; action is character, without the author's relish.

He also omits still more oppressive modern sentimentality: a tedious and unsparing confrontation of the Facts of Life. In a book about adolescence by an author of this generation, we subconsciously brace ourselves—not through prudishness but through weariness--for the scenes of the first erection, the first onanism (and the second and third and twelfth) and all the physical minutiae that have become as obligatory as ever Victorian piety was. Conroy is too concerned with truths to stutter over facts. We are well aware of his discovery of girls and of his swooning in new mysteries, but there is no glandular circus. He recounts his first full experience in detail, but the real shock - for him and therefore for us--is that the girl hardly spoke to him. Afterward she asked his name and simply disappeared from his life. It is a relief to read about sex experiences that ring absolutely true and yet have no trace of defiant utterance.

The last 50 pages of the book, which deal with his stay in Denmark and Paris before his return to an American college, are the least taking; here the laser-intensity that Conroy has played on the texture of the story seems to diminish somewhat. He seems more interested in his boyhood and early adolescence, in the birth of awarenesses, than in their subsequent use. Scenes like the one in which he and another boy rampage through a deserted Army camp in Florida or in which he dozes in the noonday heat in a kennel with three dogs or suddenly hears the noise in a room full of demented men in a hospital, scenes in which the boundaries between self and world become first blurred and then more sharply defined than before, these are Conroy at his best. On its own level and scale, there are reminders of Wordsworth's Prelude in the book: discovery of the self en route to art.

Self and art function in two ways here. They are the basic components in the book itself (we see him fall in love with literature--he is clearly traveling toward it); and also, there is evidently a sound relation between them in Conroy the man. For a young writer determined to use his life as his subject, it took a lot of courage not to write a novel. One more indication of Conroy's quality is that he had this instinct about what to do with his material and the confidence to follow it.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann