Midair is Frank Conroy’s second book. At thirty-one, Conroy published his autobiography, Stop-Time (1967), the poignant account of a young boy growing up in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. The book received praise for its richly detailed picture of adolescence. In the eighteen-year interim between books, Conroy has taught at various universities and published short stories in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Ararat, some of which are collected in Midair. In 1981, he became the director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts. Although the stories in this collection are not overtly autobiographical, Conroy has drawn on his many experiences to add color to his short stories.
In Stop-Time, Conroy focused on the relationship between an adolescent boy and the adult world surrounding him. In Midair, Conroy continues to explore the effects of various types of relationships, the most important of these being that between parent and child. He suggests that there is a deep and often unexplainable bond between children and parents that can be the cause of deep scars or the basis for profound love. Three of the eight stories in the collection present variations on this filial theme. The first of these is the title story, “Midair.”
In “Midair,” the relationship between Sean and his father is examined. As a six-year-old, Sean hardly knows his father, who has been confined in a mental hospital. One day, however, his father materializes and abruptly picks up Sean and his nine-year-old sister from school. They return to their fourth floor apartment, but since no one has a key, the father and the children ascend to the roof, climb down the fire escape, and enter through an open kitchen window. Later when the hospital attendants and the doctor arrive, the father refuses to unlock the door. As the attendants forcefully enter, he snatches Sean and rushes to the open window. Sean, for the moment, is suspended four flights above the street.
Although Sean blocks the incident from his memory, it affects him for the next forty years; he often dreams of people falling out windows, and years later he even duplicates the earlier incident. Determined to enter his absent lover’s apartment, he goes to the roof of her apartment building. This time there is no fire escape, and he must lower himself down a steeply angled roof until he is poised above her window. Although he cannot reach the window, he is not disappointed because “he becomes aware that there is a reality that lies behind the appearance of the world, a pure reality he has never sensed before.” Still he does not remember his earlier, frightening experience, which will continue to haunt him even when he himself becomes a husband and a father. When he hears of a baby falling out a window, he is alarmed and must sleep in the same room as his two young sons, Philip and John.
As the years pass, Sean is divorced, remarries, and teaches at a university. Finally forty years after the first incident, another one, equally harrowing, causes him to recall it. As Sean rides an elevator to his office on the sixty-fifth floor, it malfunctions, stopping between floors. The only other passenger, a young man who bears a strong resemblance to his son Philip, is terrified. Sean calms him, helping the young man to overcome his fear. Soon the elevator proceeds to the next floor, and the young man hurriedly gets out, astonished that Sean remains in the elevator to continue the ride to the sixty-fifth floor. Sean is no longer afraid. That night he remembers the early incident and finally accepts and understands who he is.
The narrative structure that Conroy employs in “Midair” will appear throughout the volume. In many of the stories, the present is juxtaposed against the past with rapid shifts from one to the other. In this manner Conroy implies that the present is determined by past events; the present can only be understood through reference to the past. Sean’s difficulties can only be explained on the basis of an incident that happened when he was six, an incident that he himself had forgotten.
The theme of parent-child relationships that Conroy introduces in “Midair” is continued in several other stories. “Celestial Events” describes the closeness of Lewis, an adult, and his mother who dies from cancer. The death has left Lewis feeling dismantled—“in a dozen pieces” somewhat like his mother, who earlier had lost a breast to cancer. Lewis feels unconnected until, as in “Midair,” a second incident occurs, which enables him to accept her death. When his mother was suffering from the intense pain of cancer, Lewis had purchased for her a radio with earphones so that she, concentrating on the music, could block out the pain. After her death, he listens to the same radio. One night he imagines that his mother is speaking to him over the earphones, reassuring him that everything is all right. He cries and finally is able to come to terms with his grief. Thus the pattern established in “Midair” is repeated here. The first incident disrupts the character’s life, and the second one pulls the pieces of that life together; the result is a final acceptance of past events and an integration of those events with the present.
In “Midair,” a man comes to terms with a father who has failed him, and in “Celestial Events,” a man accepts the loss of a...