Every serious fiction writer, published or unpublished, has a pile of horror stories about trying to get his or her work out into the world. The funny ones are told in bars. The ones that aren’t funny — the ones that may never be funny — are told only to therapists or to the insides of medicine cabinets.
Tom Grimes’s new book, “Mentor,” is ostensibly about Frank Conroy, the gifted memoirist (“Stop-Time”) and novelist (“Body and Soul”) who was the longtime director of the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.Conroy, who died in 2005, was a major force in Mr. Grimes’s life: mentor, father figure, drinking buddy, close friend.
What “Mentor” is really about, though, is the slow-motion derailment of Mr. Grimes’s own once promising literary career, a process that took his pride before it took his sanity. This is a book about striding up to the brink of success, only to have success disembowel you with a dull steak knife, bow, and then skip away, cackling.
Mr. Grimes, now in his mid-50s, is the author of five novels. He directs the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Texas State University. In “Mentor” he flashes back two decades to when he was broke and living with his wife in Key West, Fla. He worked as a waiter when he wasn’t working on his fiction. Eventually he applied to a few writing schools, and got only rejections.
A telephone call from Conroy changed his life. “I never call anyone,” Conroy told him, “but I’ve read your manuscript.” Within a few months Mr. Grimes was teaching alongside Conroy in Iowa. To the envy and dismay of other writers at the prestigious workshop, he became the “golden boy,” the one who could do no wrong in Conroy’s eyes.
“If you want, you can have the best agent in America tomorrow,” Conroy told him. “I’ll call her in the morning, if you want me to.” That agent was Conroy’s own, Candida Donadio, the woman who had sold Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”
Conroy’s praise was cool water poured atop Mr. Grimes’s hot insecurities, creating steam. He was all too aware of his own limitations. About his first novel, written before he got to Iowa, Mr. Grimes admits: “I imitated authors. On Monday, I sounded like Vonnegut, who, on Tuesday, became Nabokov, who, on Wednesday, became Toni Morrison, who, on Thursday, became Philip Roth.”
But now Mr. Grimes had finished his big new book, a Don DeLillo-ish novel about baseball that would eventually be titled “Season’s End.” He signed with Ms. Donadio’s agency. Roger Straus, the longtime head of the distinguished publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux, told Conroy he wanted to buy it. Mr. Grimes was on the road — or about to be.
Then the wheels began to come off. Ms. Donadio passed Mr. Grimes off to someone else in her agency. Straus gave Mr. Grimes’s novel to an editor in house, who was far less enthusiastic. Still, a small bidding war that included Farrar, Straus erupted for “Season’s End.”
Mr. Grimes, forced to choose a publisher on the spot, took Conroy’s advice and went with another respected house — Little, Brown, which made a higher offer (a very healthy $42,000) — rather than with Farrar, Straus, which he’d revered since he was young.
His editor at Little, Brown soon left, however, orphaning his book. He and Conroy had trouble attracting jacket blurbs from big names. (Norman Mailer declined, writing Conroy: “Every other day there’s a new genius on the block. It’s too hard to keep up.”) An early review in Publisher’s Weekly was brutally negative.
There were some upbeat signs. People magazine took Mr. Grimes’s photograph. But “Season’s End” was marketed as a baseball book rather than a literary one, Mr. Grimes writes ruefully, and got lost in a pile of other baseball books. His book tour was tiny. The New York Times didn’t devote a major review to the novel (though it did give it 140 words in the “Books in Brief” column in The New York Times Book Review). It barely sold. It did not go into paperback. Essentially, it vanished.
“The book did change my life, not by telling me who I am, but by not telling me,” Mr. Grimes writes. “Its failure left me unfinished.” At Conroy’s urging, he began a new novel. When publishers saw sections of it, Mr. Grimes writes, “responses were swift and identical: no.” He was left to complete a novel no one wanted.
Feeling he’d betrayed his ideals by going for a bigger check and not signing with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and with his new writing going badly, Mr. Grimes began to crack up. He had delusions, fearing he was being chased by the F.B.I. for breaking a lease many years earlier. He became afraid to use the mail, lest the F.B.I. get his return address and track him down.
Mr. Grimes got help and put his life back together. His friendship with Conroy, described well here, sustained him, even if one gets the sense that Conroy’s blind allegiance and bursting enthusiasm probably hurt more than helped. “My ambition,” Mr. Grimes admits, “was larger than my talent.”
“Mentor” is a harrowing book but not always an impressive one. There are plenty of stray details about Conroy — he liked “Law & Order,” he seemed to eat only hamburgers — but this book isn’t close to a full portrait. “Like all of us, Frank was a mosaic” is a typical vague utterance. It’s not an especially complicated picture of Mr. Grimes’s life, either.
This book’s tone is often wet and therapized. “I arrived fatherless; I departed a son,” Mr. Grimes writes about Iowa and Conroy. And, later: “I’m not ungrateful for all I have. I simply don’t know how to love it because I don’t know how to love me.”
I cringed but couldn’t put “Mentor” down. Alongside his own downward-spiraling narrative, Mr. Grimes packs this story with book world gossip, the way you stud a leg of lamb with garlic before sticking it in the oven. At one point Mailer gives Mr. Grimes some macho, if baffling, book tour advice: “You have to eat eggs on the road.”
He tells the story of being invited to a cocktail party at the home of L. Rust Hills, the influential former literary editor at Esquire. Mr. Hills pulls him aside and offers him a quid pro quo. “So, you teach my book” — a volume called “Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular” — “and I read your stuff,” Mr. Hills says. “O.K.? That’s how it works. Make sense?”
Don’t give this forthright and bewildered book to the would-be writer in your life. It might make him or her climb a tall tree and leap from it. You don’t need that on your hands. In any case, I suspect many aspiring writers will find it on their own, and read it between the cracks in their fingers.
See online: A Writer’s Prayer, Halfway Answered