Frank Conroy, who died April 6 of colon cancer at 69, was many things to many people. For me, his legacy resolves neatly to a single point of light: his memoir "Stop-Time," published in 1967, when he was just 31. To call "Stop-Time" an inspiration is to understate its influence; quite simply, it was the first book I ever encountered to suggest that nonfiction could be literature, that the essay, the memoir, the meditation might represent an act of creativity as profound as any novel or poem.
In more than one Conroy obituary, "Stop-Time" was called a writer's book, a model, a work to take apart and put back together, a status encouraged (implicitly or otherwise) by its author's 18-year tenure as director of the Iowa Writers Workshop. (He also ran the literature program of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1982 to 1987.) If the memoir's mix of narrative and reflection makes it a vivid case study for aspiring writers, it's important to remember that long before writing programs ever trafficked in nonfiction, "Stop-Time" was a reader's treasure, the kind of volume you find unexpectedly, by word of mouth or in an obscure bookshop, and it seemed to have been written with every one of its readers individually in mind.
"Stop-Time" came along at the exact right moment in my life. It was 1977, and I was a 15-year-old student at a New England boarding school, a landscape as impenetrably alien as the surface of the moon. Whenever I needed space for myself, I would wander to the local bookstore, where one afternoon I stumbled on Conroy's book. To be honest, it was the cover that attracted me: a moody, vaguely Cubist portrait, all sharp lines and shadows, of the author at 17, painted in Paris in 1953.
A bohemian story, I recall thinking, but once I got back to my room, I discovered something else: an evocation of adolescence as sharp and visceral as anything I had read. Conroy's background and mine were not dissimilar; both products of New York, we had grown up, a generation-and-a-half apart, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and when he wrote about the streets of the neighborhood, they were streets I recognized. I also recognized his habit of escaping into literature, of hiding out in his bedroom and losing himself in a succession of paperbacks.
"The real world," he wrote, "dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own."
What distinguished "Stop-Time," however, was Conroy's ability to uncover the marrow of his experience, to record the events of his life and their emotional resonance. Perhaps my favorite moment came in an early chapter, when during a trip from Florida to New York, the young Conroy and his stepfather Jean were served by a waitress with a glass eye. Conroy described the aftermath: "Outside, we walked through the hot black air toward the car. Gravel crackled under our feet. 'Good-looking woman,' Jean said.
" 'The waitress? But she only had one eye!'
"Half to himself, his voice fading as we went around opposite sides of the car, he said, 'If the rest of her is real it doesn't make too much difference about the eye.' "
The passage moved me because of what it seemed to say about reality and illusion, the kinds of revelations that are available if we look at the world closely enough. Equally important, it offered a way of getting at not merely the facts of Conroy's story but the underpinnings, the nuances of his growing up.
This is the entire point of "Stop-Time," beginning with its title, a reference to a style of blues (Conroy was an avid jazz pianist) in which a player adds musical or lyrical fills in the spaces between riffs, embellishing the basic information of the song. That's as good a metaphor for memoir writing as you're likely to come across, with its implication that meaning is what we bring to our material, rather than a function of the material itself. It's a matter of imagination, of our ability to "stop time" and reflect on the raw data of existence, which, in turn, infuses our experience with depth.
Without this, we may as well stick to surface details for all the sense that emerges of who we are and how we live. By way of illustration, consider the author bio from my old Penguin paperback of "Stop-Time," which I still cart around. "Frank Conroy," it declares, "was born in New York City in 1936. He attended schools in New York and Florida and was graduated from Haverford College in 1958. He now lives on Nantucket Island, where he writes, reads, plays the piano, and fishes for striped bass." If that's the rudimentary framework -- the riffs, if you will -- then "Stop-Time," with its licks and fills, represents the full expression of Conroy's blues.