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Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

As a portrait of an artist, Stop-Time bears comparison with others within that subgenre. It is not, however, simply a quest for artistic form; Conroy’s autobiography relates the search for acceptable forms of human relationship. As The New Republic noted of his later short fiction, the book concerns “how to live in the world as an adult male” and the difficulty of establishing endurable relations with father figures, youthful comrades, and women. It recounts the growth of sexual self-consciousness with candor and humor, recapturing the bafflement, timidity, and desperate aggression of an adolescent boy. Although Conroy emphasizes the idyllic friendship between him and another elementary school boy in Florida, the book succeeds most in its depiction of the terrible isolation of adolescence. As part of a dysfunctional family on the fringes of American life, Frank is most often voyeuristic in all relationships, not only those explicitly sexual.

The story also provides insight into the world of bohemian life and utopian experimentation during the years following World War II. After leaving the anarchy of a “progressive school,” young Frank is pulled from place to place by his Danish mother and her lover (later her husband), a displaced New Orleans Frenchman. For much of his childhood, the family moves back and forth between the wreck of a Socialist utopia in the sandy wastes of an abandoned South Florida housing tract and the streets of New York City, where his stepfather is engaged in a number of fruitless get-rich-quick schemes. Whether socialistic or financially opportunistic, all schemes are equally suspect, and Frank perceives them as the indulgence of the lazy and weak-minded. Any dogma, even his stepfather’s preoccupation with “pure food,” is a symptom of formlessness and lies dangerously close to the ultimate formlessness of insanity.

Conroy is clearly less interested in describing a certain period in American life than in revealing the manifold indications of the sheer madness which looms everywhere. The threat of psychic breakdown informs the entire book, from his father’s insanity to that of his sister, the twisted cruelty of their boarder, the instability of his stepfather, the derangement of a wealthy woman with whom he has an affair, the mental fragility of a beautiful girl in a Danish language school, and the harrowing scenes inside the institution for the retarded at which his parents were night wardens. Attempting to escape the loneliness of his parents’ cabin by staying the night with them in the mental institution, Frank is overwhelmed by the urgency of the inmates’ cries. He feels himself standing “balanced on the pinpoint of my own sanity, a small, cracked tile in the floor.” Throughout the story, as in the events of the frame, the narrator shifts uneasily at the edge.

The autobiography totters between sanity and madness, control and chaos, self-consciousness and self-annihilation. Its fragmentary bits are held together by a highly selective and technically astute arrangement of repeated motifs. Conroy explores the exceedingly narrow division between a sense of one’s self and the loss of self, and posits the capacity for design and control as the lifesaving mediating force between the two extremes. In one of the book’s central chapters, “White Days, Red Nights,” Conroy describes the winter he endured for the most part alone in a makeshift cabin while his parents worked at the Connecticut state home for the retarded. The nightmare hallucinations of his nights, he explains, at least “came from inside my own head. I was making it all, and although it was terrifying, it was not, as were the days, cosmically threatening.” The days, however, “were emptiness, a vast spacious emptiness in which the fact of being alive became almost meaningless. . . . I wasn’t conscious of what was happening, I lived it. I became invisible. I lost myself.”

Other silences are as intoxicating as they...

(The entire section is 1,232 words.)