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Book Review : Conroy Returns With Free-Standing Vignettes

October 28, 1985|ELAINE KENDALL

Midair by Frank Conroy (Dutton: $15.95)

It's been a long time between drinks for admirers of Conroy's first novel, "Stop-Time," published in 1967. In that affecting, witty book, Conroy showed an extraordinary perception of the complexities that distort relationships between generations, sexes and individuals. The prose was direct, but the encounters were approached from such oblique angles that familiar "coming-of-age-in-America" material seemed reinvented. "Midair" revisits some of the same territory, employing free-standing vignettes kept upright by invisible wires of attitude. This time Conroy has attempted to manage without any obvious fictional machinery, connecting his stories by perspective alone.

In the tone-setting opening tale, the narrator remembers the day in 1942 when his father appeared out of nowhere to call for his children after school.

He was 6 years old, too young to remember the rambunctious man now pulling him along the street. Though absent fathers were the norm in wartime, even at 6 Sean is aware his dad is not a soldier, but away in a mysterious place called a rest home. The child is more bewildered than ever, because this talkative man exudes vitality like heat or light, enveloping Sean and his 9-year-old sister in the force of his personality, sweeping them along the city streets in a steady stream of talk. Once in the apartment, entered through the fire escape, the father proceeds to rearrange all the books, pausing to read passages; the performances increasingly flamboyant.

Loses Interest in Project

Suddenly he loses interest in this project and begins to wash the windows, moving "from one window to the next, opening them and tearing away the curtains. . . . Torn curtains rise from the floor and swirl about." In the midst of the frantic activity, an ambulance comes, the bolted door is kicked in, the father races to an open window and climbs out on the sill, his small son holding desperately to his belt. After he is subdued and taken back to the rest home, the children's lives return to normal and the incident remains submerged in the narrator's subconscious until he's about to graduate from college. At that point, he's living "as if he did not have a past, and so there is a great deal about himself of which he is not aware."

Terrified of living alone for reasons he cannot understand, he marries the first candidate who presents herself. A family life ensues, flourishes and dissolves. One day the author is trapped with a strange, frightened young man in a stuck elevator, and there in limbo the crucial incidents replay themselves. The result is a 28-page biography stripped to bare essentials.

Other stories are briefer; mid-life apercus , the narrator perhaps the same man, but just as logically someone else formed by a mutual sensitivity to confusion and change. "The Mysterious Case of R," in which an analysand becomes an angel who ascends from his psychiatrist's stuffy office to Empyrean realms of his own, is surrealistic, as are "Roses," "Transit" and "Car Games," all tinged with the supernatural. Conroy's supernatural, however, has strong ties to the mundane. While their imaginations play bizarre tricks, the characters themselves watch "the small silent screen of the Sony," or devise master traffic plans for airports. You're not entirely lost in that world, merely momentarily disoriented.

Narrator Ill at Ease

"Gossip" is longer than the fanciful stories in the center of the book; a realistic excursion into the comfortable routine of university life. Here the narrator is ill at ease with himself, increasingly involved with a talented woman graduate student who responds to his lessons with the eagerness of a Galatea. George teaches writing, and Joan is his creation. For as long as their relationship endures, George is fulfilled and happy. "He needed her enough to want to do nothing to threaten that arrangement." That such a connection could be totally satisfying to both parties seems inconceivable to the small college community, and random talk destroys it. We have been forcibly thrust into the post-revolutionary era, a climate in which innocence cannot survive and all human connections are presumed to be sexual.

The final story, "The Sense of the Meeting," is a father-son encounter, a theme Conroy clearly favors. This time he doesn't limit himself to that specific confrontation but meticulously examines the mixed emotions with which an adult faces his earlier self. The setting is another college campus, the other characters old friends who have also come back for the Big Game in which Kirby's son will play. In conjunction with the opening piece, it makes a small, neat circle circumscribing a contemporary American life; the edges clearly etched, the center not yet filled.

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