The bestselling author offers scattered remembrances and ruminations about favorite books, writers and inspirations.
Conroy (South of Broad, 2009, etc.) begins with what seems like a plan—a more or less chronological journey forward from his early reading days. He follows it for a few chapters before abandoning it, embarking on a narrative about influential individual writers (James Dickey, Thomas Wolfe), favorite books (Gone with the Wind; Look Homeward, Angel; War and Peace), formative experiences (traveling around with a caustic book rep, living in Paris) and a few free-standing meditations (the penultimate chapter, “Why I Write”). Along the way, he both canonizes and crucifies. Among his saints are his mother, who loved reading and showed her son the lovely life of a bookworm; his high-school English teacher, Gene Norris, who challenged Conroy, excited him about an intellectual life, took him to visit Wolfe’s home and remained a lifelong friend; and an eccentric, nonreading Atlanta bookseller. Among those the author lashes are some notables at a long-ago writers’ conference: William H. Gass, who was vicious in a workshop and had “a grand intellect, but a shoddy heart”; Alice Walker, who signed a book but wouldn’t speak to him; and Adrienne Rich, who repelled all men, Conroy included, from a public reading. No Conroy book would be complete without a few dark visits from his abusive Marine Corps father, “The Great Santini,” who arrives in several chapters, fists flying most brutally. All Conroy’s gifts, excesses, successes, failures and folderol both adorn and diminish his text. He is capable of something pure and perfect (“I read for fire”), something hackneyed (“Once you have read War and Peace, you will never be the same”) and something truly affecting (passages on the death of his beloved high-school English teacher), and the dialogue veers from brisk and natural to patently crafted and self-serving.
From time’s bookshelf, Conroy selects some arresting volumes and some dusty duds better left alone.