'Mentor,' a memoir by Tom Grimes, reviewed by Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, August 5, 2010


A Memoir

By Tom Grimes

Tin House. 243 pp. Paperback, $16.95

From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes's brutally honest and wonderful "Mentor." While there have been plenty of books on how to write, or how to get published, or how to promote your work, as well as a number of triumphalist accounts of "making it," this is a story of what it's like to just miss succeeding. It's also a superb reminiscence of the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the late 1980s and of its celebrated director, Frank Conroy, author of the classic memoir "Stop-Time" (1967).

At the age of 32, Tom Grimes was working as a waiter at Louie's Backyard in Key West. He'd already been writing fiction for years and seemingly getting nowhere fast. His childhood in Queens, N.Y., had been psychologically debilitating because of a cold, unloving father; a streak of depression ran in his blood; and he'd recently been divorced. Now, he was happily remarried and wondering what to do with himself. Time was passing. Should he go to law school? Instead, at the advice of his wife, Grimes applied to four creative writing programs. Three turned him down.

One day, though, just as he was about to ride his bicycle to work, the phone rang. " 'This is Frank Conroy from the Iowa Writers' Workshop,' the voice said." Conroy had loved the excerpt from Grimes's novel and announced that he was giving him the program's top scholarship. "See you in August."

That fall in Iowa, Conroy continued to sing the praises of Grimes's unfinished novel about baseball and the American dream. "I'll tell you. Your manuscript. Jesus Christ. . . . If you want, you can have the best agent in America tomorrow. I'll call her in the morning, if you want me to." (At the time, this was Candida Donadio.) Later, Grimes learned that another student was referring to him as "Golden Boy," and people were comparing his writing to that of Don DeLillo and the young Richard Ford.

Surprisingly, Grimes turned down the scholarship and asked to teach courses instead, calculating that he might need such experience on his résumé. He knew himself to be a bundle of neuroses, prey to anxiety and depression, and deeply uncertain whether he could complete his book to his own satisfaction and that of his new mentor and friend. Indeed, Conroy quickly seems to have looked on Grimes as a foster son, even an heir. It's clear that their similar backgrounds -- hardscrabble New York childhood, crummy jobs, drink, divorce and much else -- might generate a spiritual kinship.

After class, Conroy would regularly adjourn to the Mill, the local watering hole. "Frank ignored warnings about high cholesterol, got drunk nightly, and couldn't write without a cigarette," Grimes recalls. Although in his mid-50s, Conroy had published only a slender collection of stories ("Midair") since "Stop-Time." Now he was working on his much-anticipated first novel, "Body and Soul." Surely it would be a great success, win some major prize or prizes.

Thus, as "Mentor" goes on, we follow the lives of two men, the fates of two novels. Why does writing mean so much to them? Can their books actually live up to expectations? At one point, a public relations guy named Jay asks about the purpose of novels, and Grimes wonders: "What are novels for? Entertainment? Metaphysical inquiry? Chronicling one's times? Could I tell Jay that the world is chaos and an artful novel satisfies our human desire for order, or that the novel excavates meaning from the rubble of incomprehension? That a novel is a thing to be read upon a beach in July for pleasure, or that I was an Iowa Writers' Workshop student and writing a novel was my homework? Or that I never want to die and when I'm writing a novel I believe I never will?"

In "Mentor" Grimes brilliantly evokes the intensity of the Iowa program -- of his close friendship with short-story writer Charles D'Ambrosio, of what it's like to sit around a seminar table while your classmates rake over your work, of the serenity felt when the sentences are flowing well. Though much happens to Grimes at Iowa, initially everything seems to go his way: An apprentice work is published by a small press and receives critical accolades; a play is produced in Los Angeles and wins an award. Conroy continues to speak of a six-figure advance for his favorite student's real novel.

Finally, Grimes finishes "Season's End," and an agent -- an associate of Candida Donadio -- sends out the manuscript. All his adult life, Grimes has yearned to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux or by Seymour Lawrence (whose clients included Katherine Anne Porter, Kurt Vonnegut and Frank Conroy). Both are interested in the book, as are three other firms.

What happens during the actual negotiations is enthralling -- and what happens afterward is even more so, as Grimes fights to save his book from being "orphaned" because his editor leaves for another company, and then fights once more against being ignored after a negative review in Publishers Weekly. When Grimes travels to Dayton, Ohio, for the first stop on his pathetic book tour, any writer will recognize the scene that awaits: Fifty chairs are set up for the audience, copies of "Season's End" are stacked high on a table, there are plates of cookies and an urn of coffee -- and nobody comes. Not a single person.

In its final quarter, "Mentor" darkens even further, as the wheel of literary fortune turns against both Grimes and Conroy. "Body and Soul" makes money but doesn't become a bestseller, wins no awards. Grimes ends up taking a low-paying teaching job at Southwest Texas State, then ranked by Playboy as the best party school in the country. He suffers a severe breakdown, leading to the brink of suicide. Meanwhile, Conroy's health fails -- diabetes, then cancer -- and he dies at 69.

Yet neither man's faith in writing ever wavers. Near the end of "Mentor," Grimes starkly confesses: "I'm a failure as a writer because I've overreached; my ambition was larger than my talent. Yet I willingly accepted that risk." He feels that he's always somehow left himself out of his fiction, and so concludes that "Frank is the protagonist of my best novel, and my best novel is this memoir. In the end, my memoir about Frank is a memoir about me."

In his teaching, Frank Conroy always stressed "meaning, sense, clarity," and Tom Grimes's deeply moving account of what the writing life is actually like shows how well he learned those lessons. "For me," he says, "writing is a necessity. I exist in sentences. I forget my sense of failure. I forget time. I forget that I'm aging. I forget that one day I'll die. Revising sentences is an act of hope, and connecting with a reader is the only leap of faith I'll ever take." In "Mentor" he not only leaps, he soars.

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