by Frank Conroy
Viking, 304 pp., $5.95
North Toward Home
by Willie Morris
Houghton Mifflin, 438 pp., $5.95
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 …