Odd Couples 2: Mr. P and Me

on Frank Conroy and Jane Austen

by Michael Rymer

austen coverconroy cover

I almost couldn’t finish writing this. Not because I was blocked or anything, but because I kept getting interrupted by a guy called P.

The first time I saw him was on a Sunday. I wasn’t writing. I was sleeping when he climbed through my bedroom window. Then he started marching around the bed, beating his chest and shouting, “Enjoy the sleep while you can! Enjoy the sleep while you can!” He woke my wife, too, of course. It was only 9 a.m. She is – or we are – pregnant. (She is [we are!] due in April.) So we both understood what he meant.

I should have mentioned this before: P. is not a normal-sized man. At just 20 inches tall, he’s a miniature version of a man. But he’s a miniature version of a very intimidating man – big chest, flannel shirts, blond stubble. If I saw him in a hard hat, I wouldn’t blink.

And he has sticky hands. One night in January, he followed me to a downtown Barnes and Noble and scaled the New Fiction shelf at the front of the store and crouched atop it for ten minutes until I walked over (oblivious to him). I picked up a copy of Maile Meloy’s new collection of short stories. As soon as I opened the book to the first story, he leapt, and landed with a foot on each opened page. Then he handed me a tiny Bic pen.

At first, I was reluctant to talk about P., but when I started to do so, I learned that he visits a lot of men in my situation. A few guys confirmed what I had already suspected – that P. – or Mr. P., as everyone seems to call him – is my conscience; or, rather, a sort of universal conscience for men with pregnant wives. (“P.” is for pregnant.) Some guys – ones who’d already had kids and hadn’t seen him for years, usually – even seemed to like him. “All he really wants to do is prepare you,” one said. But they also acknowledged that he can be really aggressive.

That night at Barnes and Noble, he started shouting: “I want you to make a list! One: a Dutailier Matrix Glider. Two: an Ergo organic baby tote. Three: a Diaper Genie.” On and on he went, listing ten or eleven products – baby products – he said I should have been thinking about buying – should have been saving for – before I looked for “another novel.” (Any book that’s not a how-to book about parenting is, to him, a novel.)

frank conroyTwo weeks ago, I was home alone, enjoying the last hours of a long academic vacation, re-reading Frank Conroy’s Stop Time, the writer’s classic memoir of his teen years, when I felt a rumble under one of the cushions. It was him. He pried Stop Time out of my hands and tossed it into the kitchen. Then he dangled a purple paperback called The Infant Sleep Solution in front of me. I had to lock him in the bathroom. I had a deadline. I told him I’d call the police.

Now I understand he was just trying to save me – to save me from Jean, Conroy’s stepfather,  the “ne’er do well son of a collapsed aristocratic New Orleans family” at the center of Stop Time. Jean is a loafer who people seem to tolerate as long as they do only because of his con man good looks, which Conroy describes:

He was six feet tall, slim, and sported a black mustache. The bones of his face and head were extraordinarily delicate and well proportioned, just slightly smaller than life size, accentuating their fineness. A perfect Greek head, but without the Greek effeminacy. His features were French and masculine. Dark, almost black eyes, a thin humorous mouth.

Jean is still a young man when he marries Dagmar, Conroy’s mother. Dagmar is his third wife.

Just two things, aside from women, capture Jean’s imagination: conspiracy theories – he believes that “dentists refused to tell people not to eat sugar because in doing so they would put themselves out of business” and that “there was no such thing as heredity, everything started from zero when the sperm cell met the egg cell” – and the prospect of earning rental income. At eleven, Conroy is a captive (though already skeptical) audience when Jean talks about auto industry cabals or the dangers of white bread, and he and his sister and mother are at the mercy of Jean’s entrepreneurial whimsies: the family goes from New York to Florida, from Florida to New York, and then back to Florida, and back to New York, as Jean sniffs out ways of making money. It’s the life of an army brat, without the international stays.

And Jean is no colonel.

He is a real estate prospector! Their first trip to Florida – to Chula Vista, a housing development near Fort Lauderdale that was abandoned during the Depression and then resettled by a Wisconsin Socialist known as Doc – Jean and family build a house without any outside help and without the aid of an architectural plan. The completed structure looks like “one large room.”

He is a green grocer! Back in New York, Jean sets up a produce stand at the corner of 68th and Lexington, but quits just a few days in, conceding that fruit vendors in New York don’t in fact have “one of the sweetest deals around.” Next, he works as a night warden at the Southbury Training School, a Connecticut State Institution for the “feeble-minded.” A weekend post that requires little of him other than sitting in the kitchen, it’s as close as he can get to money for nothing without stealing.

This he does also, bilking money from checks sent from the estate of Conroy’s late father. (He is a thief!) He needs the money for when he moves the family back to Chula Vista to build a second house, this time with lumber scavenged from an abandoned barracks. Neither house is ever tenanted (or not that Conroy mentions, at least).

Scary, that Jean, eh?

Well, he is for me. He reminds me of visions I’ve had (in nightmares and in moments of professional panic) of myself in five or ten years. In these visions, I’m a comically misguided writer who makes quixotic professional decisions that seem designed to forestall, rather than generate, income: Here I am sinking four years into researching an un-contracted book on the history of jaywalking, or Vaseline! Here I am paying thousands of dollars to a web designer to create a blog covering the nut butter industry! And here I am as a literary species of deadbeat father, a man who, though his baby is in need of a new diaper, won’t put down his New Yorker.

That’s why I’ve sometimes wondered if I should have allowed Mr. P. to take Stop Time with him and pulp it, or whatever he was going to do. Well, of course I wouldn’t have wanted that. But I’m highly susceptible to influence – even to the influence of literary characters – and Jean is not a good influence for me.

In the last pages of Stop Time, Conroy writes of Jean’s unexpected transformation into a responsible father, working long hours as a taxi driver to support a baby daughter born to him and Dagmar. But with Conroy himself, Jean never really tried. The boy is just marital baggage, mildly threatening because of his precocious intelligence and moderately useful as an extra pair of hands to remove shingles, pump water, bag produce, or fetch milk. He’s not someone to love, boast about or laugh with or instruct. He’s someone for whom fatherhood– the idea of it and the day-to-day transactions it entails – never kindles any avidity. So I won’t be upset if he makes a swift exit from my memory before April.

And yet.

jane austenAnd yet I can’t help but wonder if Jean was doing something right, if there was some twisted wisdom in his abnegation of parental responsibility. I’m serious, though I’m sure this cracked thought wouldn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park around the same time. If you include her biological parents, the wealthy uncle and aunt who adopt her, and another aunt who poses as her custodian, that novel’s heroine, Fanny, has five parents, none of whom take much interest in her life, and she blossoms in a solitude enforced by this neglect. In stark contrast with the over-indulged, histrionic cousins alongside whom she’s raised, Fanny is contemplative, staunch, serene.

She’s as successful at raising herself, as it were, as Conroy, who masters the yo-yo in Florida (he learns a trick called The Universe and executes fifty consecutive Loop-the-Loops) and reads novels during his days at as a student at Stuyvesant high school (he provides a seven line-long list of writers he read which includes Lawrence, Mailer, Zola, Dumas, Dreiser; he just avoided flunking out) and pursues one interest after another without anyone ever noticing. Later, he teaches himself to play the piano (and he would make his living as a jazz pianist for many years).

Both Fanny and Conroy seem to thrive on building their lives from scratch, and it’s hard to imagine how either of them would have developed under a more watchful parental gaze. Would Fanny, like her cousins, have fallen for buffoonish men? Could Conroy have possibly written this book, which deserves its reputation as a great memoir. (Trust me, read it, and then forgive me for not celebrating it enough. Its great virtue, aside from Conroy’s language, is its author’s utter lack of rancor.) Or one like it?

(You have to go beyond this book, which Conroy wrote in his 30’s, to appreciate the man’s life, which I know only through his often anthologized essay, “Think About It,” which describes his friendship with Justice William O. Douglas; an account of a former student of his at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he directed for 18 years, who described him as one of the “last great mentors,” and an interview he gave, wearing a floppy brown cardigan over a baby blue button-down shirt, for the 2002 documentary, The Stone Reader, in which he explains that, when you read a book you love “you feel that you are the brother of the author and the two of you are working together,” and he recalls trying to write at night after returning from piano gigs, with sweat dripping down his face. (Conroy died in 2005)).

As I write this, Mr. P. has joined me. He used a fingernail clipper to cut through the screen of my office window as I was absorbed in writing and he’s now climbing the leg of my desk. He must have sensed that I’ve been tumbling toward a preposterous question:

And what is the value of careful, attentive parenting anyway?

Now Mr. P is jumping on my keyboard. He’s shouting:

Aren’t there nine, or nineteen, or ninety-nine other Frank Conroy’s out there who did flunk out of Stuyvesant and never went on to Haverford College (as Conroy did) and are slaving away like Jean finally had to, driving a cab?

Of course there are. I’m sorry. I’m new at this.

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Michael Rymer writes Odd Couples, a periodic Coldfront column that closely addresses two ostensibly different works of literature. He holds a B.A. in Comparitive Literature from Brown University and an M.F.A. in Nonficition Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, GOOD, and elsewhere. A a graduate of the Writers’ Institute at theCUNY Graduate Center, he lives in the Bronx. Find more at michaelrymer.com.

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