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Musical Wunderkind Makes It to the Top

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BODY & SOUL By Frank Conroy Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence 450 pp., $24.95

WHY do publishers - and the media - choose to hype one book and not another?

When it comes to books that contain sensationalistic material, the reasons, alas, are all too obvious. What is harder to account for is why one commercially-oriented, mass-market writer among thousands is singled out to be the one that everyone will be reading, or why one worthy, ``serious'' writer among hundreds suddenly becomes the ``find'' of the season.

A case in point is Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, whose first novel, ``Body & Soul,'' is being published 26 years after his literary debut with an autobiography, ``Stop-Time.'' (A volume of short stories, ``Midair,'' surfaced in 1985.)

``Body & Soul'' is a pleasant enough novel, but certainly not an exceptional one. It is not particularly well-written, or brilliant, or touching, or profound, or original. It is, however, a fairly good read, featuring a sympathetic hero whose musical genius allows him to rise from the squalor of his tenement childhood to the heights of artistic inspiration and world renown.

When we first meet cute, curly-haired, dark-eyed Claude Rawlings, he's a little boy cooped up in a Third Avenue basement apartment who listens, transfixed, to the sounds of the world passing by on the street above. Claude's mother Emma, a 300-pound taxi-driver, is not a cruel parent, but she is neglectful and uninterested in her son, reserving what devotion she has for the local Communist Party cell to which she secretly belongs. A former showgirl, she's jettisoned hopes of a singing career and barely looks at the dusty old piano she's kept from former days. Claude discovers its magic on his own.

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