North Toward Home
In our times the rate of change, and of human obsolescence, is so great that it seems quite natural that young men just past the age of thirty should publish their memoirs; and that—in Mr. Morris’s case at least—those memoirs should be studded with the names of the prominent political and literary figures of our time, observed at close range and on familiar terms. Both authors, inevitably, devote most of their work to recollections of the process by which their characters were formed through childhood and adolescence; and both avoid the common clichés of accounts of boyhood, actual or fictional. Mr. Morris does not emerge from his pages looking at all like Francis Marion Tarwater; nor Mr. Conroy like Zooey Glass. Conroy does remind me a little of Stephen Dedalus; but I am not sure whether this is so because he really resembles Dedalus or because reading about him makes me feel like Leopold Bloom.
Conroy and Morris are almost the same age—thirty-one and thirty-three, respectively—and the two writers who have contributed statements of praise to the jacket of Conroy’s book are mentioned at some length in Morris’s. In the small world of New York publishing all these people probably know one another. Yet, two books could scarcely be more unlike nor, probably, could two men. Mr. Morris is a superb raconteur: colorful, amusing, with a wry but sympathetic eye for the quaint detail that manages to survive in the modern world. He is tolerant of fundamentalist backwoods preachers and Texas scalawag politicians, whom he fits into a picture that includes the larger images of Bill Moyers and Lyndon Johnson, and makes them a little—not much—easier to understand. Later, he is equally tolerant of the filth and malice of New York. His book provides a succession of sharply drawn anecdotes and vignettes in which he appears as the slightly bewildered and astonished participant-observer, naïve but shrewd, before whom the wicked world opens and to whom it gradually yields. When the book ends, New York has become Willie Morris’s home.
His ambivalence about his journey and his awareness of its moral ambiguity, along with his manifest and understandable satisfaction at making it, give him a curious resemblance to a character in a Dreiser novel. Morris’s fascination with the vitality of city life and eagerness to develop its opportunities fully, while being equally aware of its disgusting aspects, somehow recalls Sister Carrie; and his skill in paddling upstream through what must have been some pretty tricky reaches of the Yazoo and the Brazos suggests a much cooler Clyde Griffith, who sometimes burns his boats but never capsizes them. Though unassumingly written, North Toward Home is so preoccupied with status and power as to seem rather old-fashioned; growing up in a small Southern town has given Morris not only an eye and an ear for the nuances of social class, but an archaic faith that society has enough structure to permit one to care which are the important people. If Norman Mailer were as certain as Willie Morris that it is possible to be Norman Mailer, he would probably live a much more tranquil life.
Yet, North Toward Home also seems very modern in its air of genial, informed tolerance. Its most touching sections deal with Morris’s growing awareness, as he deals with Logan Wilson’s efforts, as President of the University of Texas, to control the university newspaper of which Morris is editor, of the pressures that make Wilson act as he does. Later, this tolerance permits him to accept the wheeler-dealers of the Texas political scene who provide most of the material he needs as editor of the militant but good-natured Texas Observer, and to survive in New York without letting its frustrations and humiliations blow his mind. When a Yazoo man comes to feel at home in Manhattan, he’s gone about as far as he can go.
Though often revealing, North Toward Home is not a candid book. Whole—and apparently important—sections of the author’s young life are omitted or dealt with summarily, such as his experiences as a Rhodes Scholar. And though the style is genial and warm throughout, and the attitudes expressed are consistently generous and liberal, the effect of the book is curiously impersonal. Morris complains in it about the transient and rigid qualities of friendship in New York, where friends see each other twice a year by appointment for the duration of the contract; but gives no detailed picture of the more satisfying friendships that may have enriched his adolescence. There are frequent references to his young son; but no sense of the Morris domestic scene becomes established in the reader’s mind. Morris may be reticent through modesty, assuming that the reader will have more interest in the persons whose names are already familiar or who quaintly represent the past. But an autobiographer must start with the assumption that the core of what he has to offer is his own special perception of and involvement with reality. If he does not, his work becomes a sort of travelogue; which is what North Toward Home is—though a discerning one whose narrator has a real grasp of the terrain through which he guides his reader.
Stop-time is another sort of book altogether. Conroy is the coolest of cats whose grace, precision, and emotional fastidiousness permit—indeed, have compelled—him to create beauty from the least promising experiences of life. Feeling glows through his work like flame in alabaster; and there isn’t a false line in it. If Marianne Moore wanted to celebrate her eightieth birthday by writing a poem about a young man instead of a pangolin—which would be pleasant for an old lady to do, I should imagine—she could hardly find one who would please her more than this lad. Not afraid of anything is he, and then goes cowering forth, tread paced to meet an obstacle at every step.
Social class adds greatly to the interest of Conroy’s narrative, too; not because he is especially concerned about it, but because he comes from an underreported section of our population: the marginal, urban middle class—not intellectual, not even Jewish—a social class that seems hardly to exist except in real life. Conroy gets as close to the heart of what it is to be an American in average circumstances—not an average American—as it is possible to get; his book explores that existence so intimately and unflinchingly as to reveal its moral and even its political implications with inescapable clarity. Conroy’s book, which is not about politics at all, tells the reader more about our political situation than Morris’s which is full of political detail. The people and the relationships that develop among them, their attention-span and their sense of moral responsibility, or lack of it—these are the rock realities of which American policy must take account. Conroy’s people are what there is to work with. And Conroy, too, of course.
Stop-time shows the predicament of contemporary life to be even more serious than we usually suppose. We conventionally picture society, in the age of anxiety, as fragmented into bits and pieces of relationships like cocktail-party talk. Much of our life, and that the most frustrating part, does seem like this; and we consequently complain of anomie, and of a pace and a pattern of life that interrupts human relationships before they can be fully formed. This, as I understand it, is the main source of Morris’s dissatisfaction with New York. The lonely crowd is composed of isolated individuals who “relate” to one another only in their specialized functions, not as whole persons; so they can’t get no—or give—satisfaction. We do not so much make use of others as of parts of others, and ignore or throw away the rest. In the process, then, we become what the Mothers of Invention call plastic people: walking, talking prostheses in whom—or, rather, in which—the human but non-functional parts have been replaced by insensitive material that can stand the heat and pressure without pain or becoming disabled. Plucky, lovable old President Truman, famous for saying, “If you can’t stand the heat get the hell out of the kitchen,” and also for having two atomic bombs dropped on a half-million people who couldn’t, is a fair example of the process in action.
This point of view is familiar: the Schrecklichkeit we tolerate and live with ruefully, ironically, with self-deprecating humor; it is what we accept when we turn North Toward Home. Stop-time reveals that the trouble lies deeper. For, though it is as fully a document of the age of anxiety as any ever written, and is held back from despair only by the heart and sinew of its author, it is not the story of a fragmented life, or of a life among fragmented people. One of the most remarkable aspects of the book is the depth and continuity of characterization it reveals. Conroy has managed to maintain relationships in depth with people who, one would suppose, would slip out of other people’s lives and books through sheer narcissism and fecklessness. He does it, apparently, though the cool intensity of his interest in them and the minimal nature of his demands on them.
Except for a one-page Epilogue, Stop-time concludes when Conroy enters Haverford College in, as I figure it, 1954; and there is no indication that he plans to continue his autobiography. If he should, the resulting work may resemble Anthony Powell’s novel sequence. The Music of Time, very closely in its style and fundamental approach to life and character, despite the great difference in time, place, and personnel. Powell’s novels too, are distinguished by the way the grotesque indestructability of his characters casts into sharp relief the irrationality and instability of the social scene in which they are involved. Any world in which Widmerpool and Dicky Umfraville keep turning up in positions of authority must be doomed.
So, one feels, must the world of Conroy’s single volume; which is big enough to accommodate a ménage that at times seems more a menagerie, and that is continually involved in pitiable and grotesque events related by Conroy with the calm of straight man in a crazy dream. There are his detached Danish stepmother, Dagmar; and his alcoholic father who dies when he is twelve. His father’s successor, the drifter Jean, is mean-spirited, socially incompetent, and emotionally immature; but these defects are ameliorated not only by the charm that has become cliché in such types but by enough Gallic sensuality and tolerance to have given the boy space to grow in, and to support him in an open, if not really hopeful, attitude toward life. The quietest member of the family, his elder sister Alison, pays for her calm with her sanity in the closing pages of the book; but is nevertheless saved, Conroy implies, by the fidelity of her fiancé who marries her anyway. The most bizarre figures in the book are the lovers—or, rather, vicious pets—each spouse adopts in an effort to complete their lives a little. Donald, whom Dagmar brings into the apartment as a boarder, and who stays for years, is spiteful, frigid, and destructive; she keeps him, in Jean’s presence, as kind of evil jester. Jean, in every way a less competent manager, waits till Dagmar goes home on a visit to Denmark to pick up a psychotic woman who has hired the taxi he is driving at the time and moves her into the apartment. She rapidly becomes madder and more desperate till he is forced to appeal to Dagmar to return and help him get rid of her; Dagmar refuses and Frank, finally fed to the teeth, tries to run away, back to the cinderblock and tarpaper abortive “development” in the boondocks behind Fort Lauderdale, where the family had spent the best years of his boyhood. He doesn’t make it; later, during summer vacation, he does, seeking Tobey, his cracker boyhood friend. Their encounter, though civil, is unsatisfactory. By the age of sixteen, social class and rural-urban differences that merely added spice to boyhood friendship have become insuperable barriers.
In summary, none of this is even novel. It sounds like soap-opera. It isn’t events that make Stop-time unique, but the way Conroy succeeds in making the reader understand that the banal pattern of his life is composed of elements that were once precious in themselves but have become worthless through abuse—usually self-abuse, though the abusers had few more fruitful alternatives available. The people who play out the scenes in Stop-time are not fragments; they are as real, and as panicky, as spoiled priests in an engulfed cathedral. Conroy fully reveals the nature of their sin, which is classic and cardinal, but not original and not even fancy.
They are guilty of acedia, which is the special sin of the banal, and, indeed, of the Western world in the mid-twentieth century. For the first eighteen years of his life, Frank Conroy was involved with people who were incapable of caring for others or, usually and more basically, for themselves. They are like this sometimes because of fragmentation, or the limitations imposed by a constrictive social role; as in the case of the good, devoted Travelers Aid worker who tries to put him into a juvenile detention home when destitute, he turns to her, during his hitchhiking trip to Florida. The YMCA is full, and she has no other place to put him; so that he must flee in terror from one of the few truly generous people he encounters. But, usually, it is inner resources that are lacking in the people he must turn to; they are indifferent, irresponsible, incapable of conceiving that they might be of value to another human being and hence that they might have some obligation to him. Conroy himself, as a child, is like this—what child isn’t?—as he makes very clear in describing the beating he and a group of other boys inflict on a pudgy, helpless schoolmate in a lunatic progressive boarding school, to which his parents had abandoned him from his ninth to his eleventh year, summers and all. But incidents of overt cruelty are rare in this book; had they occurred they might have relieved its tension. Instead, Conroy and those he recalls are continually left hanging in their particular traps by people who recognize their plight, but don’t make it their business to do more than their job; or who don’t really know what their job is, or care. This happens so regularly, and Conroy accepts it with such stoicism and quiet agony, that the reader is forced to make the conclusive generalization for himself. Clearly, we are dealing with a pervasive social norm; our society not only does not require that we care for one another, it rarely affords us the means to do so and contrives our punishment if we try. In such a world acedia becomes a form of self-defense; except for those, like Conroy, who realize that it is, in any case, a form of suicide as well.
If this, too, seems a familiar proposition, let us examine its meaning in a concrete situation. This one arose when Conroy was in the fifth grade; a schoolmate has just told him that his father, whom he believed to be hospitalized for alcoholism, is dying of cancer. He forces an interview on Dagmar:
My mother was in her room reading Life magazine.
“Somebody in school asked me why Father doesn’t live here with us.”
“I said because he was in the hospital.”
She turned a page, “That’s right.”
“And that half his face was paralyzed because of an operation.”
She glanced up at me, looked away, and put down the magazine. “Is that the door? I thought I heard a key in the lock.” She got up and moved past me into the hall.
“But that was a long time ago, and he’s still in the hospital.” I followed her up the hall and stood at the open door while she went into the bathroom.
“He’s been in and out of hospitals for a long time. Almost your whole life.” She lifted the lid of the toilet, hiked up her skirts, and sat down.
“But this is a real hospital, not like those places in the country, those rest homes.” I felt very odd asking these questions. I knew what I said was true, but somehow it felt like I was making it up.
“He’s still very sick. He has to stay in the hospital because they have all the things he needs.” A faint hissing sound as she made water.
“What’s wrong with him? What does he have?”
She didn’t say anything for several moments, sitting quite still staring at the bathroom wall as if I wasn’t there. Watching her profile I could see something happen to her face, a subtle change coming over it as she decided to tell me. “I guess it’s time you knew. I told Alison already because she’s older. Your father has been away so long I knew she would and we just have to accept them.” She reached out and unrolled some toilet paper. “Your father has cancer,” she said, and reached between her legs to wipe herself. “Luckily, it’s not the painful kind, but they don’t expect him to get well.” She stood up.
“Is he going to die?”
She looked at me in a very special way she seldom used, letting me know she was about to tell me something important, something larger than herself. It was a tone of concern, and yet of abandonment. “Yes, That’s what the doctors said.”
“Do they know when?”
“They’re not too sure. Six months or a year.” She flushed the toilet.
I went to my room.
There isn’t much to be said about this scene, except, perhaps, vita brevis est, ars longa.