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Book Review: Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes

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Among children, friendship is clearly defined. Contained within specific forms and boundaries, it exists only between peers, typically between members of the same gender, and is ritualized in games and ceremonies of exchange. For adults, the land of friendship is a more uncertain wilderness; open admissions of liking or distaste are frowned upon, and the line between acquaintance and friend wobbles over the bumps of propriety. Sometimes the deepest friendships are those that are most ill-defined, that in their turn end up defining us.

“Still, I couldn’t decide if he was my teacher, mentor, friend, father, or a composite of these figures.” In Mentor: A Memoir writer Tom Grimes chronicles the life-cycle of a relationship that seems too deep to be constrained by the common definitions of friendship. Yet, as the book progresses, one sees that Grimes’ bond with his mentor, the late writer Frank Conroy, expands the boundaries and defines friendship.

At the time of their meeting, the scales of influence and status between the two men appear wildly unbalanced. In fact, at their initial encounter, Conroy, the legendary author of Stop-Time and then director of the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, holds a status so lofty that he brushes off the puppy-like advances of the struggling Grimes with a brusque “Yeah, you and eight hundred others” in response to Grimes’ opening statement that he has applied to the workshop. In his memoir, the mature Grimes follows this scene with a vivid depiction of his anger, an anger that strongly resembles that of a spurned child.

I cursed the lock, its chain, my hands, and my stupid fucking bike, which I rode across town, at times standing on the pedals, like a kid, pumping harder in order to move faster. At home, I kicked open the front gate, chained the bike to the front porch, unlocked the front door, slammed it shut behind me, bounded up the uncarpeted stairs I’d painted battleship gray on one of my days off, then slowed at the top of them, where two floor-to-ceiling bookcases made of one-by-six pine wood planks stood. I’d never alphabetized my library. The three hundred or more books I owned had tattered spines. Most were paperbacks. Some were taller than others, making the collection look craggy and disheveled. I spotted Stop-Time on a high shelf and reached for it, tipping forward and grabbing it…

…I struggled to tear it in half. When I failed, I ripped out pages by the handful until I’d gutted the thing, splitting in two the author’s name and the book’s title. Then I carried the shredded mess into the kitchen and flung it at the trash bin, railing at pages that fluttered away. I collected them, maddest at the ones that insisted on slipping out of my fingers. Once I’d crushed every page by jamming my foot into the trash bin and stomping on the pile with one foot, I turned and said, “Fuck Frank Conroy.”

This scene, while initially seeming merely to depict an excessive reaction to a snub by a busy man, serves multiple functions as an entry into Mentor: A Memoir. In its rapid-fire, almost rambling style, it highlights the deceptive complexity and strength of Grimes writing. Though rich in details such as the stairs and bookcases, Mentor weighs in at a mere 239 pages. Not a word is wasted. As Grimes says, “Every author is required to use only those details that advance the story.” The details of bicycle, stairs, and books ground us in the shabby world of a struggling and insecure writer for whom, “Only one constant existed: I wrote. Writing was my center of gravity. If I quit, I’d implode.” The details that hint of immaturity: standing to pedal the bike faster, stomping pages into the garbage, cursing the authority figure who snubbed him, point toward the complexity of Grimes’ future relationship with Conroy. As in the relationship between parent and child, each would consistently look to the other for validation: the child seeking approval, the adult living through the child’s accomplishments and failures. And, in the excesses of Grimes’ anger, we see the dark edges of looming instability, of a time when Grimes would say “Eight weeks later, I was clinically insane.”

The details advance the story. The details of Grimes’ rejections, first at the talk by Conroy, then by several MFA programs – including a particularly callous rejection by the staff at Syracuse – lead the story to a phone call.

I can’t say what happened after I returned the phone to its cradle. In a creative writing workshop, this is when the famous writer overseeing the conversation (I’ll call him Frank) says, “First off, don’t be vague. Don’t just have the character wander around the apartment, dazed. Give the reader concrete details. You have five senses at your disposal: touch, sight, sound, taste, and [smell]. Use them. As in, ‘I heard the front door close. The loud crackle of a brown paper grocery bag drifted up the stairwell.’ (Is drifted the best verb?) ‘My wife was home, and the ceiling fan whirred as I stood in the living room, waiting for her.’ We know she’s going to walk through the living room doorway moments later, so don’t write ‘moments later’. It’s redundant and stupid….The character’s life has suddenly – never use the word suddenly — the character’s life has been altered in a manner he doesn’t yet fully comprehend…Remember, the reader knows what’s coming. Nothing in the narrator’s life will ever be the same. So capture his astonishment in unadorned dialogue. ‘Frank Conroy called. I got into Iowa.’ End of scene. End of chapter. Any questions?”
No.

Once again, Grimes’ details fill niches in multiple layers of story. In the interest of brevity, my ellipses cover other delicious sentences depicting not only Grimes’ emotions at the time, but Conroy’s teaching style and Grimes’ memories of his mentor.

Like the details that color Mentor: A Memoir, the book itself is more than one thing. While on the surface it is, as it proclaims itself, the memoir of a friendship between mentor and student, the book is as much autobiography as it is biography. Grimes treads the crumbling ground at the edge of self-indulgent navel gazing, but is held aloft by the twin forces of unabashed love and unflinching honesty. “But I’m remembering Frank here and, of course, he’s laughing, although bile no longer burns his throat. In me he found his biographer. Yes, he rescued me.” Of his own writing and failures as a writer, Grimes says, “But something all along was missing – me. And this book redresses that absence. For twenty years, I believed Frank filled that absence. But he didn’t; my idolization of him did; moreover, my fictionalizing of him did. 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. By writing about Frank, I could no longer turn away from myself, which is what I’ve done all my life. Now I’m gazing at myself.”

Looking from the outside, I might be inclined to quibble with the depiction of Frank as “the protagonist.” As Grimes says, “my memoir about Frank is a memoir about me.” Although, Frank Conroy is well described, depicted in greatness and in foibles, the action of the book tracks the life of Grimes, the narrator, with Conroy existing more as a touchstone, a home-base, to which Grimes returns again and again. None of this lessens the impact of the book or the chronicle of the friendship between Conroy and Grimes. On the contrary, viewing the relationship through the eyes of the younger, and more overtly insecure member of the pair creates a greater universality. Most of us can relate to anxiety and the need for approval. Through his generosity in placing his own needs and uncertainties on the table, Grimes creates a space in the reader for acceptance of our selves and of our own fears and for a greater awareness of the relationships that rescue us from the darkness of our own self-loathing.

Ultimately, Mentor: A Memoir can best be summarized in the following: I couldn’t put it down. Even more than the admittedly excellent novel I was reading concurrently, Mentor captivated me. I wanted to watch the development of Grimes as a writer, to see the impact of his friendship with Frank Conroy, to witness his experiences at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to have that mouse-hole view into the world of modern literature. Grimes delivers all of that and more. In writing Mentor: A Memoir he has also written a memoir about all of those who strive to achieve.

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