Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy
by Frank Conroy.
Viking. 304 pp. $5.95.
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. 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 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.
Stop-Time is as unpretentiously original in treatment as it is in conception. Having decided to take seriously his own youth, and having decided to use the devices of fiction in treating it, Conroy has not let himself be trapped by formal considerations. In the telling of each stop-time, or vignette out of his life, his primary commitment is to rendering the experience itself (reality, like fiction, is unparaphrasable). But also Conroy does not hesitate to comment on what he has written, to say, once he has rendered his experience, whatever he can about it. He does not deny himself resources for the sake of form, or worry about whether he is writing an autobiography or some kind of fiction. He is a man speaking to other men, as Emerson would have said, and so he speaks in his own voice when he has something to say.
Conroy grew up a kind of orphan with parents. He saw his institutionalized father only a few times, living most of his childhood with his mother and her boyfriend (later husband), “Jean,” equally superficial in his good looks, opinions, and emotions. (His mother's only genius was for building enduringly superficial relationships.) Left alone to grow up—his mother and stepfather imposing themselves on him only when they needed him to take out the garbage or clean up after the dog—Conroy received not the slightest emotional or intellectual guidance.
He participated with the other children at a progressive boarding school only in their general defiance of authority, and, once, joined in the cold-blooded community beating of a sullen fat boy—“although I've worried about it off and on for years, all I can say about it is that brutality happens easily. I learned almost nothing from beating up Ligget.” The chronicle of formative events in his youth includes life in New York City and in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he reached the end of childhood in company with his only friend, a local redneck. In New York, he ran away; later, he got a part-time job after high school at a chemistry lab; he went to Europe at seventeen, was accepted at Haverford College on the strength of high college-board scores, and with that acceptance became free of his past, “and that was all I ever wanted.” The book ends as it began, with a glimpse of the adult, married, but still unanchored Frank Conroy ten years later. No final answers are given, but the act of writing this autobiography at the age of thirty has permitted its author finally to come to terms with, if not to free himself of, his past.
In the process Conroy has almost offhandedly evoked the vacuity of ordinary America in the 40's and 50's. The conversations and concerns of his mother and Jean are so familiarly dull that it is startling to see them in print. Their speech is not literary speech, for it has absolutely no reverberation. Taking a short cut on their way to night work at their “cottages” on the grounds of an insane asylum,
Jean leaned over the wheel, craning his neck to watch for the cutoff through the black truncated trees. “It's along here somewhere.”
“We have to pass that boarded-up farmhouse,” my mother said. “Here it is.”
The dreariness of these people's full-time absorption in the mundane is the boy's environment. Seen as the stuff of his experience, their familiar language patterns come to appear hideous. When Mark Twain captured such speech there was release in laughter, but in Stop-Time you are not let off from what is soul-destroying in it. In concentrating at high intensity on memories of his own impressions, Conroy has succeeded in recording the drab-ness of an entire generation's experience.
Given the utter ordinariness of his stepfather's mind, Conroy's depiction of him is a triumph which calls to mind Faulkner's Jason Compson. Less colorful and less bitter, Jean Fouchet. shares Compson's obsessive, warped insight into the conspiracy on the part of “them” to defraud the public. Jean is a Jason Compson of the ordinary:
Half his life had been spent wandering like some profane messiah telling people not to eat white bread and they had gone right on doing it.
Usually the purveyor of self-taught half truths is a popular and delightful figure in American fiction—one thinks of what Saul Bellow would have done with Jean as a theoretician. But to Frank Conroy his stepfather was not a “character,” and so he has conveyed him without dramatic heightening, leaving his reader with the experience of having listened to him over the years:
Jean's intellectual touchstone was clarity. All problems were reduced to a simple proposition—race prejudice was exclusively an economic problem, dentists refused to tell people not to eat sugar because in doing so they would put themselves out of business, religion was nothing more than superstition, if you ate the right foods you would never get sick, there was no such thing as heredity . . . no one could learn to play the piano except by practicing eight hours a day. . . .
Frank's mother and Jean simply go on existing without a sign of variation or growth; they live in “total isolation from the rest of humanity”; they argue droningly on through the years about Carlton Fredericks; they are like characters in a Beckett play, only they are real. The overwhelming loneliness felt in the great American books is felt here too, not spectacularly as in Hawthorne, but as the most unremarkably commonplace condition of existence.
Conroy's resources for sustaining the self are skills, and, when he grows into adolescence, humor. (“Your days are numbered,” says his boss, joking, and Conroy replies, implying by the kind of dialogue that his age in this stop-time is about sixteen, “‘Don't joke about it. Please. This job is one of the few decent things in my life.’ I paused. ‘You can imagine what the rest of it is like.’ ”) The best writing in the book is devoted to exquisitely accurate celebrations of his few moments of success in life, each of them a triumph of training and expertise. On buying his first yo-yo, “I knew that I was going to be good at it,” Conroy remembers, and he goes on to detail the principles of the kind of yo-yo that can be used for tricks, painstakingly telling how he mastered its technique. Later, he gives an equally fervent technical account of the squirt gun he secretly constructed for the daily backroom water pistol fights at his after-school job; then,
When I started arching long, curving streams that almost struck the ceiling before raining down on the far aisle, everyone caught on. Jimmy turned, expecting an ally, but filled with a sense of reckless power I let him have it. . . . “Intelligence wins again,” I shouted.
Without constructing a philosophy or a life-style, Conroy makes of games and skill a revelation of character. His refusal to gang up on the third man in a squirt gun battle brings out his perverse integrity and his preference for lonely distinction.
Yet, Conroy's dependence on his skill has a note of desperation. Like so many American accounts of growing up, Stop-Time is a series of experiences of violence, followed by an escape. And this flight from society, as in Huckleberry Finn or in Hemingway's book about growing up, In Our Time, is accompanied by an entire dependence on the self, on craft and the expertise of survival; there is not a glimmer of faith in what society and traditions might have to teach. More than violence or terror, it is the vacuousness of ordinary America that forces Conroy to run away. In the few scenes in which we see him as an adult, he remains drawn into himself, and it is clear that his triumph has been a negative one: he has survived.
There is something somber in the way Conroy refrains from any announcement or implication of triumph over the intractable stuff of his life. The book does not end with the acquisition of a new sense of meaning, as did, for instance, Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City (in whose distinguished company this work belongs); rather, at the end of Stop-Time Conroy's soul is barely intact. Yet what it lacks in uplift the book makes up in the perfection of its negative virtues—its author does not feel sorry for himself, he is neither self-damning nor self-justifying, he bears no resentments, and he does not try to cut a figure in the world. At the same time, as with most memorable autobiographies, Stop-Time becomes meaningful not only as a record of life, but as an act of life as well. When an author has accomplished this there is an added pleasure in anticipating his next writings.