Book: Body and Soul
Author: Frank Conroy
Published: 1993 (Dell)
So this poor kid finds out he has a knack and a patience (and you totally have to have both) for the piano when he’s young and living with his mom in this run-down old NYC tenant while she’s driving cabs when she can, which isn’t nearly enough, and one day the kid goes into a music store and plays around on one of their pianos and the owner hears him and thus starts a lifelong journey of increasing musical tutelage, patronage, and working privilege.
Great, right, except there’s no real arc to it. All of this slides up smoothly, like a really good glissando, with barely a nod at any obstacles in his way. He doesn’t really have to fight anything or anybody to get where he wants to go; he’s good at playing the piano and that helps him meet the right people and that gets him where he wants to be. The end.
As a kid, he’s a mixture of awe, street-smarts, and natural tenderness that I was rooting for him to succeed, but when he did so easily and so early, he flattened out into a generic dude with a sentimental streak that he never really grew into. I’m sure his symphonies were great and all, but I can’t imagine where he pulled the conflict he needed to make them truly interesting.
I did like the mother – she’s a “solid” (read = large) woman who doesn’t know who fathered her kid during WWII but knows that won’t make a lick of difference now so she’s getting by as best as she can; she likes Pabst by the quart and doesn’t show a lot of affection but fully supports her son anyway without the frills of maternal sentimentality. She also gets called before the Senate to testify because she’s an unapologetic Commie who doesn’t tell on her associates, and all she gets for that loyalty is her hack license pulled.
I also loved the music theory bits. Conroy pulls no punches. You will learn about the physics of 12-tones, dammit, and if you have no idea what that is, then too bad. You might get lost when the piano shit gets serious. Listen, I had a combined total of like 12 years’ worth of music theory and it took this novel plus a further pub dinner explanation for me to understand the gist (when some notes are played at the same time, the frequency of their sound waves match up in sometimes weird ways that intensify or diminish each other! ISN’T THAT COOL?).
I picked up this book because of David Foster Wallace, whom I’ve given up resisted pretending to not love. (I might’ve gone as him to a Dead Celebrities karaoke night and performed that B*Witched song [I can’t spell in French] with a friend who dressed like Tesla. Together we were The Ambiguously Famous Duo and replicated the Irish jig bit of that music video on stage. In front of people. That we know. And like. Life has gotten weird, y’all.) In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” his essay about going on a cruise, he says that Frank Conroy’s Stop Time made him want to become a writer. (Of course, this was brought up because Conroy had written the souvenir pamphlet for the cruise ship…)
Maybe I should try that out, and maybe that’s just as awesome as it still seems like it would be to get DFW to write, but this one doesn’t really impress. Donate.
…or should I ignore my superstition that if I take my books to sell at Second and Charles, the Book Dispensary will spontaneously combust of my guilt the next time I skulk in for my volunteer hours? I might become a bookstore credit junkie. Who works in a library. I will drown in books one day, and it will be such a beautiful well-read death.