We gave it a B+
This could be the year of the child prodigy. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is about a brilliant young chess player. Frank Conroy’s first novel, Body & Soul, which sparked a bidding war in Hollywood (Dustin Hoffman lost out to Spring Creek Productions), is about a brilliant young pianist. While we anxiously await a project about a brilliant 9-year-old book reviewer, let’s admit that this is an encouraging development. The way in which talent or genius awakens in a child and pulls him or her along a steep and often lonely path is an engaging subject, especially in a time of mediocre, mass-produced aspirations.
Conroy is well matched to the subject. A pianist himself, he’s best known for his first book, Stop-Time, the 1967 memoir of his own beleaguered childhood. What made Stop-Time a remarkable book was its evocation of separation and solitude, its unsentimental sense of a boy’s experience as a place apart, a province stubbornly trying to secede from the empire of adult edicts and intrigues. At its best, Body & Soul is a similar achievement, a precise conjuring of an exceptional child’s perceptions and feelings.
Body & Soul begins in 1940s New York, a city that is ”long gone, replaced by another city of the same name.” In the cluttered basement apartment Claude Rawlings shares with his mother is an old nightclub piano. As he learns to play, the piano becomes more than a beckoning mystery — it is a refuge, a promise of order and escape. Claude works up the courage to enter Mr. Weisfeld’s music store under the el tracks. Weisfeld soon recognizes his gift and becomes his teacher, father figure, and the novel’s patron saint. Claude becomes a triumphant performer and budding composer, even while his nonmusical life remains discordant. Gradually the authenticity of period, character, and childhood estrangement gives way to sentimental contrivance and clockwork coincidence. The stereotypes are straight out of the old Hollywood movies that Conroy, like his hero, absorbed while growing up. Claude, his career, his compulsory nervous breakdown, his slightly dissonant happy ending — it’s all a bit like the melodramatic style of musical performance that the novel earlier makes fun of. This isn’t Dr. Faustus or any sort of great novel about music, but the first half is full of enchantment. B+