by Frank Conroy
Hold the sentiment. Hold the petulance. Hold the mayo. Frank Conroy is a grown-up’s writer. Since his celebrated Stop-Time (a powerful 1967 memoir) and Midair (a 1986 collection of stories), Conroy has become to fiction what Bobby Short is to cabaret: possessed of deceptively simple elegance, nonchalant perfectionism and a devoted critical audience.
Body & Soul is the fictional tale of Claude Rawlings, a magically gifted musical prodigy. The melody of this novel, which has more layers and grace notes than a Mozart concerto, is Claude’s life. As a lonely lad in post-World War II New York City, he is kept locked in a scabrous basement apartment while his alcoholic mother pilots a taxi all day. His salvation: an out-of-tune piano on which he discovers the secret world of sound. With a Dickensian riff or two from Conroy (a jazz pianist himself), Claude’s talent propels him upward toward great teachers, monied patrons and, eventually, Carnegie Hall.
Conroy plays in minor keys as well, assembling a cast of characters ranging from trashmen to U.S. senators, slyly recounting (through Claude’s teachers) the history of the piano it self and making grating observations on everything from McCarthyism to the Third Avenue El.
Few writers have observed the creative life so magnetically. “Once you get to a certain point, you can sort of forget your hands…. You go into a kind of trance of concentration, imagining what it’s going to sound like, feeling it in your head,” Claude explains. “You have to train yourself to keep your concentration, otherwise you can gel so happy you just go over the top. It’s wild.” So is Body & Soul. (Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, $24.95)