It was during a blustery, chilly morning on Enders Island off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut, while discussing a sample of my writing in a peer driven workshop, that my friend Eugenia Kim first sparked my interest in Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. With her usual clever, foxy insight and keen, lucid perception, she gazed at me, smiled while tapping the tip of her forefinger against her chin, and said, “Stop-Time is a book I would highly recommend for you to read, Scott. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.”
Naturally, me being me and always eager for another story to whisk me off my couch and into another world, I immediately scribbled the name in my notebook. And while I have come to trust her instincts, I wasn’t at all ready for what lay ahead as I began to flip through the pages.
I’ll start at the beginning.
It became readily apparent to me when I began reading, that Conroy can easily bounce back and forth between rich, florid language and more stark, frank (no pun intended), to the point prose when relating his tales. It was kinda funny because as I was reading, at times, he reminded me of Hemingway and then of others, such as John Fowles (The Magus comes to mind for some reason. Don’t ask me why). However, that being said, I immediately found myself entranced by his language. I began to realize that he uses fragmented sentences quite a bit, or short, choppy ones at the very least and he often switches from past tense to present tense when telling stories. He certainly has a bare and honest style. And it was comfortable, as if you were sitting across a desk from him, sharing a beer, and listening to him relate his tales. The book is set up as a series of short stories, more or less, which I found easy to read, and there is subtle societal commentary, critiques, and observations thrown in here and there.
All this being said, I must say, however, that at first I felt a bit confused.
I have to admit something. I’m a very easy going reader. I’ve never been one to launch into a book with the intention of critiquing it, or bear my eagle eye upon the pages with scrutiny for mechanics. I feel most comfortable when I’m willing to go along for the ride and see where I end up. Moreover, I usually don’t spend a lot of time fretting over structure or the point, which in this case is astonishing considering how easily I, unconsciously it seems, recognized his style.
I prefer the tidal feeling of the words and I have faith, that in the end, I will see said point, at least from my own understanding of life and experience. I mention this relaxed posture of my mind merely because it was interesting to me that, at first, I didn’t really understand what Conroy was trying to do, why I was reading these tales, and where I was headed. They seemed to be a random collection of stories at first. I wasn’t sure of the meaning, and to be honest, I found myself somewhat bored. Or perhaps, listless is a more proper way of expressing my feelings.
But something fascinating began to happen about a third of the way through the book. It dawned on me, quite suddenly as it were, that he was using chapters and the tales contained therein, as coming of age topics. What I mean by this is that he seems to understand and have an acute insight into the different aspects of coming into adulthood, of learning the ways of being an adult. And there were many, many more than I must confess I have consciously thought about. He uses this approach very successfully (even though, at times the events and stories may be seemingly unrelated), and in the end they all serve a purpose in telling about how he learned to be an adult, how he grew up, each focusing on a particular aspect or facet, if you will.
For example, in the chapter called Hanging On, I got the impression he was relating how he learned how to be political, how he learned how to manipulate to get what he wanted and it is contrasted with the stark reality of life, the bums on the street. He also learns through being fired, that his humor and wit, his good relationships with the people in the laboratory, with the occasional burst of hard of work, is not enough to keep a job.
In License to Drive, he goes back to Florida and discovers how things have changed in his mind, as a result of growing older. The place itself hadn’t changed all that much, but Tobey, his childhood friend, did. And the feelings he had did. He seemed to feel nostalgic for those, what I would call, “the good ol’ days” when they were younger, when they were more innocent. But now, he realizes that Tobey has become a stranger. I think we’ve all felt that, the memories of the past we want to cling to with all our might, that preserved innocence, that snapshot of a time in our lives that meant so much. We never really want it to change, but we have to accept and realize that it does.
In each chapter he is learning something new, something new to propel him into adulthood.
A yo-yo going down, a mad squirrel coming up was a great chapter and one that struck me personally. First, I thoroughly enjoyed how he described learning how to use a yo-yo. It was entertaining and endearing. Second, when he finally mastered the Universe trick, and realizes that it’s a “ghost” doing it, as if someone or something was speaking to him through the yo-yo, I immediately thought of when I write a chapter or a story. It’s interesting because, when I try so hard sometimes (consciously that is), it just plainly doesn’t work. It only works when I let the “ghost” do it.
But as always, there is a lesson Conroy is trying to convey. I got the sense that when he didn’t win, even though he was the best, just because of the idiotic rules, he didn’t let it get him down. There is confidence building here, another step in the process of coming of age, another phase he passed through. He doesn’t have to prove he’s the best, he knows he’s the best and that is a sign of adulthood, and maturity, when you realize you don’t have to prove it to the people who don’t understand or are myopic within their rules. And I also think it’s symbolic that he ends up selling the yo-yo and then is peeking in a window at a girl. I feel that is symbolic of passing over a threshold of maturity, on to the next stage of growing up. It’s a beautifully written chapter.
I loved the way he began the memoir with his occasional drives into London, and how he has these short bursts of rebellion, of danger, seeking something within himself that he couldn’t quite identify. And then, in the end, we come full circle, back to where we started. He’s driving home and comes very close to crashing his car, perhaps ending his life. And a lone resident of the town hears him and his car, and asks, “Here. What’s all this?”
And he laughs.
It took me a while, I had to think about it, as usual pacing my living room or the kitchen, or both, but it finally dawned on me. The point. It seems to me that is a rather ironic way of ending a coming of age story. That this is the question we all have asked ourselves from time to time as we traverse adulthood. In other words, what’s it all been for? What was that all about? What is all this, that which we call this life? I found that to be the stroke of a genius at work.
What I ultimately learned from Frank Conroy is that a memoir is more than a story, more than a collection of odd little events that have happened in our lives, presented on the page to both amuse and distress the people who are interested in reading our tales. Memoirs are in fact, a written expression of learning through living. Every event in our lives, in small ways, in large ways, propel us to who we are today. They have allowed us to grow and evolve. And it’s this process that we all go through that makes for a satisfying memoir.
P.S. I still have my Duncan “Hot Rod Wheels” yo-yo. It sits on a shelf in my living room, having survived the years with me.
And I play with it from time to time.