Frank Conroy tribute

This remarkable and well-attended event in the MacBride Auditorium felt kind of a like a cross between the Academy Awards and a memorial service. I was woefully underdressed, a grave miscalculation that kept me shamed and skulking in the shadows, bejeansed and bright-striped, huddling close to Tracy -- and to my mother and aunt and their friend, huge Irving fans who had driven 325 miles to be there. All minds were on Frank as Chris Merrill began his first introduction, and it felt at times as if Frank's presence really were in the room, as if we had all summoned him from beyond to cast his boyish and appreciative grin upon our gathering. Chris mentioned that Frank's first piece of advice to him when he arrived was "Get yourself a Connie."

Tom Grimes read an earnest, heartfelt dedication, but the poor guy was victimized by speaking too close into a nonoptimal microphone, rendering some of what he said unintelligible. You could tell nevertheless quite clearly just how much his relationship with Frank has affected him. Marilynne Robinson then rose and delivered a beautiful articulation of what Frank had meant to her. Once she had told him that when she came here, she had thought Chicago was closer, and that it seemed light-years away. "Yeah," said Frank, "but it's still light." She developed this theme of Frank's ability to read and understand and go right to the heart of the matter better than anyone else with such fond eloquence that she herself welled up a bit and had to pause once or twice. Her remarks were powerful and affecting.

John Irving, looking "hot," as I heard more than a couple people remark, in a pink shirt and charcoal blazer, his tanned wrestler's face framed by that trademark, whirled-up white hair, then mounted the podium and, after telling us he has no plans to ever tell the story in public again, launched into a yarn of "Dickensian coincidence" involving his sons, his ex-wife and her boyfriend Henry, a wrestling mat, a swimming pool, a ceiling fan, and Frank Conroy that was one of the very greatest and most hilarious spells of storytelling I've ever been privileged to witness in person. Truly had the entire audience in the palm of his hand and calmly proceeded to bring down the house. Everything about the story -- the timing, the wry voice modulated according to which character was speaking (his Frank was dead-on), the pacing and length and appropriateness to the occasion, the way he came at the main moments indirectly, letting the listener put it together in his or her own head -- was utterly masterful and riveting. He read it from a notebook, having introduced the piece as a first draft and promising to read something "not a first draft" afterward, which turned out to be a snippet of his new, "longest" novel, called Until I Find You Again, I think. The novel's subject matter has to do with the art of tattooing, but then the short beginning he read was about a mother introducing her son to the girls' school he's about to enter. That first, hilarious piece was a vivid, almost stunning reminder of why this man was my favorite writer for years -- it made me vow to pick up something of his again, soon, and convinced me that he is still one of the shrewdest observers of the human situation. The second piece made me wonder if he doesn't maybe revise too much and focus too much on very long works, given the crackling, raw energy of the first piece. A new book of stories, perhaps? Or he probably has one, and I've just been too out of the Irving loop to have noticed.

T.C. Boyle then read a story "about loss," vis a vis a couple who, after some drinks, a joint, and preparatory play involving the wife's new slinky lingerie, receive The Dreaded Call: Their daughter's been in a wreck, come to the hospital. The story was interspersed with abrupt reflections on cataclysmic collisions between the earth and celestial objects, such as the Tunguska object and the one that killed off the dinosaurs and 70% of life on earth, which lent the story its title but which escapes me at the moment. It was entertaining and well-rendered in language, if maybe a bit stretched out and belaboring its metaphor. I thought the bullet-dodging but still cautionary ending struck just the right tone.

President Skorton wrapped things up by addressing Frank directly, his eyes rolled up to Heaven "even though," as he said, "I don't believe in things like that," and was only "doing it for effect." He talked about Frank's jazz playing, and how Frank had gently convinced Skorton to trade in the tenor sax for an alto because his "range was okay in the middle, but the notes at the top and bottom are just not there." Frank "always spoke truth to power," said Skorton, who later took up the flute and once jumped in with it as Frank played. Frank put up with this for a bit and then said, "Why don't you just listen." The event ended with Skorton eschewing the "applause I am used to and so richly deserve" to ask that we remain quiet in our seats as a bit of Frank's music played. I didn't catch the name of the first tune, but it was a light blues ditty featuring a lot of jazzy riffing and playful ivory-tickling from Frank. The second tune served as the soundtrack to our departure. It was a fitting segue into the reception.

Which was held in the Natural History Museum downstairs, a delightfully surreal setting for milling about. There's TC Boyle sipping water and nodding in front of the Giant Sloth. There's John Irving strolling alone beside the Squaw and Her Husband. There's SER passing along the word that our next destination would be the Mill. And there was President Skorton with his sax, filling the air with jazz along with the rest of the band he and Frank had started. And the doors opened on a beautiful day, a far cry from the cold drizzle that had moistened the journey to the auditorium. All in all, it was a wonderful and stirring tribute to our late hero, which had begun, host Chris Merrill reminded us, as a celebration planned by Connie for Frank himself to enjoy in person, but turned into a remembrance. I don't know about anybody else, but it seemed to me that Frank managed to be there with us anyway.


Kim said...

I just want to say thank you for such a beautiful rendering of the day. I wasn't able to make it, so it was nice to hear a personal account.

SER said...

The attendance was awesome - such a strange, cool swath of people. Former students, famous authors, local VIPs, and regular old locals were there. Rep. Jim Leach was there. Guest-star Goats and Babies were there (Brooke and Ian in from StL; Derrcules and L. in from TX). It was great.

And that John Irving story was incredible!

PJKM said...

Thanks so much for this, Grendel. I'm really sorry I couldn't make it. I finished a chapter of my novel instead, and sent an e-mail to a student urging him to revise his work by paying attention to the clarity of each sentence.

I hope Frank would think it time well spent.

brooke said...

Grendel, thanks so much for this perfect summation of what was an extraordinary celebration of Frank's life. SER's right: The attendance was incredible (though not surprising, given how Frank influenced -- and will continue to influence -- so many); bR mentioned that there was even an overflow room. The service could not have been more lovely, from Marilynne's elegy to John Irving's hilarious story to President Skorton's choice to end the time with jazz. And it was wonderful to see everyone: Becky and Brandon, SER, Brian, Corbin and Tracy, Bret in from L.A., Josh in from New Orleans, El Gordo, Matt, Michelle. Lovely, too, to see Jim McPherson looking well, and Ethan with his newest daughter. Overall, a celebration of a life that was completely life-affirming. Just exactly, I can't help but think, how Frank would've wanted it.

Brando said...

Great post, Grendel. Nothing much to add, other than to say I thought Chris Merrill also did a terrific, understated job of introducing everyone and also had some touching things to say. I can't think of a better way to have honored the man than through Irving's first story. He had the entire room enraptured and hanging on every word.

synthetic said...

Sorry, I misread "a grave miscalculation" as "a grave mastication." I like it better that way, though. Not enough grave mastications around here.