(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

As a story writer and fictional memoirist, Frank Conroy is a disciple of the early James Joyce. The “showings-forth” of suddenly apprehended truths Joyce called “epiphanies.” Writing of passages in “The Sense of the Meeting,” Conroy conveys epiphanic moments when a father recognizes in the setting of his old college on whose basketball team the son plays, that, looking at his son in the double vision of his own past and his maturing son’s present, he is overcome by “a great rush of bitterness, protective love, a desire to shelter the boy against some vague, unnamed threat.” Seemingly unrelated, the stories in Midair make up a composite that the title reinforces. Their strategy is a variation on Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), in which young Stephen Dedalus builds to an assured sense of high purpose. The reader finds in story after story that what is literally airborne—as in the title story, where a child is held out a fifth-story window—must be perceived epiphanically. Anne Tyler puts it well: “We begin to associate with that suspended instant that precedes a new comprehension, or a radical swerve in one’s life.” Maggie Conroy once urged her husband, if asked about the long intervals between books—eighteen and eight years—to reply, “I’ve been doing errands.” To Conroy himself, it was quite logical that he had written only three books to date. “I really never thought of writing as a career. Although Stop-Time was a critical success, I never got any signals that I could make a living as a writer. So I had to look elsewhere to figure out how I was going to support myself.”


Most introspective persons experience dramas even in the quotidian, rethink such catalytic moments, and find themselves fashioning out of them a circuitry of remembered links. At the end of perhaps Conroy’s finest story, an elevator slightly malfunctions between the sixty-third and sixty-fourth floors. The only other occupant with the protagonist, Sean, is a young man whom he takes momentarily for his son, who is away at college. Thetwo ideas overlap—the idea of [son] Philip and the idea of the young man—and in that moment time seems to slow down. It is as if Sean had seen his son across a supernatural barrier—as if he, Sean, were a ghost haunting the elevator, able to see the real body of his son but unable to be seen by him. An almost unbearable sadness comes over him.

That night, rethinking how he “saved” the frightened young man by assuring him he had experienced scares like this before (Sean had never been on that elevator before), he flashes back to an earlier time in the story when he was six and his improvident father, unexpectedly returned from a mental hospital, carried him out on the windowsill of their apartment five floors up. “Here, in the darkness, he can see the cracks in the sidewalk from more than forty years ago. He feels no fear—only a sense of astonishment.” The story is told by the man, who was once the small boy, who directly or obliquely is at the center. Whether describing Sean the boy asking why Sean the father is crying (“he has never felt as close to another human being”) or conveying the signs by which Sean senses that his marriage is coming apart, Conroy evokes the powerful influence that events from the past can exert on the present. For him, all things have double meanings.


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