Excerpt from MENTOR by Tom Grimes

Over dinner in a Chinese restaurant, before I began my third novel, I said to Frank Conroy, “Since I may be about to waste two years of my life, do you have any advice?”

“Go in with plenty of energy,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Bob Stone,” whose novel Dog Soldiers I worshiped and used as a model for the book I’d begun to call City of God, “says novels end once they’ve worn us out. Norman [Mailer] equates writing a novel with a prizefight. You have to train like a boxer trains. You have to be in shape. If you aren’t, entropy wins, you lose.”

Granted, Hemingway may have offered these dated, macho recommendations, but they spoke to one editor’s concern that I wouldn’t have the requisite energy and concentration to complete the novel. But given my previous winter’s experience when language no longer streamed through my mind but became as stagnant as a swamp, they also made sense. Depression and another semester of teaching freshman composition had smudged and worn down my imagination the way corrections on a handwritten page blacken and diminish a rubber eraser.

For my novel, I’d borrowed the conventions of a crime novel; my book began with a cop killing. But I didn’t want the novel to sound formulaic. A novel’s music is its meaning. So I made the details specific, yet slightly strange. When the boy, Ray, comes abreast of a patrol car parked on a deserted street, surrounded by condemned buildings:

“His gloved hands unsheathe the truncated rifle barrel strapped to his chest when the cop nearest him looks out, his eyes meeting Ray’s. They don’t pick up the gun at first. It’s just a simple turn of the head, a reaction to something stirring near the blurry edge of peripheral vision.

The first C-4-tipped shell hits the window and rocks the car, its passenger-side tires lifting off the ground. The plastic explosive in the cartridge bursts on impact, dappling the windows and doors with small bright stars and kicking back a shower of sparks. Holes open in the passenger window and Ray can hear shouting — panicked, angry, terrified — inside the vehicle. The second round rips through the interior of the car and blows out its far windows, glass leaping from the doorframes and fanning out over the street. This time no voices are heard under the clacking of metal as Ray reloads, just a deep, hoarse whining. He fires again, this blast taking off the steering wheel top. Then he realizes that the whining sound is the cop nearest him trying to breathe. As the gun’s report echoes down the street, it becomes quiet enough for Ray to realize that the guy is still trying, though just barely. The spooky thing is that the sound seems to be coming not from his mouth, but from his chest.

Ray peers into the car and sees that the man’s head has fallen back against the security grating behind him. His jaws are open, part of his throat torn away. What’s left is a thin, bloody, faintly pulsing stalk. His shirt ripped open, a fractured bone juts out from the skinless stump of shoulder, his flesh from sternum to ribs peeled away like a skinned onion. The man’s insides gleam, slick and reddish-black in the streetlight. For an instant, Ray thinks he sees the man’s heart dangling by a partially severed artery, beating arhythmically outside his ribs. His own heart clutches.”

The one-hundred-and-ten pages I wrote in Frank’s study the following summer generated enough momentum to carry me into the late fall, by which time I’d completed the book. But had my two years of work produced a good, publishable novel? “Good” in whose eyes, “publishable” according to what editorial board’s opinion? Also, would Frank approve of and perhaps even admire it? I had no idea. Once my fleeting elation over finishing the novel passed, I had five hundred and sixty-seven pages of prose, which needed editing.

But had my two years of work produced a good, publishable novel? “Good” in whose eyes, “publishable” according to what editorial board’s opinion? Also, would Frank approve of and perhaps even admire it? I had no idea. Once my fleeting elation passed, I had five hundred and sixty-seven pages of prose, which needed editing.

I borrowed a Mac classic computer from a student (I still owned a typewriter). Then my wife, Jody, and I drove to Key West. We’d rented a house with a dreary living room, but a large bedroom, a bright kitchen, and a deck outside of its French doors. Every morning, we walked to the Cuban café, ordered to-go cups filled with café con leche, returned to the house, and then worked, uninterrupted, for eight hours. Jody perched at the kitchen counter with the computer and keyboard, while I sat on the deck, pencil-edited the manuscript, and handed her corrected pages through the open doors. Then she entered the changes, I gave her additional changes, and, at dusk, we strolled to the marina’s bar, ordered drinks, and watched the sunset. In two weeks, we cut five hundred and sixty-seven pages to five hundred and ten pages. Shortly before Christmas, we took a day off, then returned to our stations and began to revise the next draft.

Working on the novel’s cleaner, sleeker draft, we trimmed five hundred and ten pages to four hundred and fifty-four in the following two weeks. I hated the book. But I printed the manuscript, mailed it to Frank, and waited.
Frank didn’t call before Jody and I left Key West, even though he must have had the manuscript for five days. Intellectually, I understood that despite snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures Frank hadn’t planted himself on his front stoop to await its delivery. But emotionally, I pictured him standing on the sidewalk, wearing his bathrobe, hoping to spot the mail truck. And what I felt always trumped what I knew.

During our twenty-hour drive to Texas, Jody often slept, or pretended to sleep, in order to protect herself from my obsession with why hadn’t Frank called. Crossing Alabama, I debated — compulsively, yet silently — where, in Frank’s life, my manuscript resided. Leaning against the front door in its unopened envelope? Lying on his bedside table? Glued to his hands because he was too engrossed to put it down? Or hidden on a shelf, largely unread? Jody knew I’d begin my interrogation regarding Frank’s opinion the instant she opened one eye; I knew that, at some point, she had to wake up; and the moment she did, I said, “Why do you think Frank hasn’t called about the book?”

Barely conscious, she said, “He probably hasn’t read it yet.”
“But he will read it?”
“Yes, he’ll read it, when he has the time.”
“Why wouldn’t he have the time?” (I’d blocked out the workshop’s eight hundred application manuscripts.)
“Because he’s busy.”
I paused (on purpose). Then I said, “Should I call him?”
“I mean when we get home?” (She knew I meant from the next gas station.)
“But you’re sure he’ll read it?”
“You think he’ll like it?”
“I don’t know.”
She slept through Mississippi and woke in Louisiana.
“What if he doesn’t like it?”
“He’ll tell you he doesn’t like it.”
“Why wouldn’t he like it?”
She napped again and regained consciousness in East Texas.
“Let’s just say…”
“He’ll love it, okay? He’ll love it. Satisfied?”

Once we reached our house — it remains impossible for me to call Texas “home” — I checked our answering machine. I heard several voices, but not the one voice I wanted to hear.

At the beginning of February I called Frank, prepared to hear his disappointment regarding my novel. I was also afraid that he’d think I’d lost my talent, my promise, and my mind. Three years had passed since we’d sold Season’s End. In light of its failure, had Frank decided to distance himself from the book and, therefore, distance himself from me? True, he’d spoken highly of me to Rust Hills and, once again, had invited me to teach at Iowa. But what if the new novel changed his feelings? I wanted to believe that his love was unconditional, rather contingent upon my literary success, but I wasn’t certain. So I called not only to ask about my novel but, indirectly, to ask about our future.

When he heard my voice, he said, “Professor Grimes!” — not “Hey, babe,” or “Tom!” Unintentionally, he’d demoted me from author to instructor.
“The novel’s that bad,” I said.
Surprised, he paused, then said, “To the contrary, my friend.”
“It’s good?”
“It’s better than good.”

Not everyone agreed, but after speaking to Frank and having my questions about the novel and his undiminished affection for me answered, I could no longer be wounded.

-Tom Grimes is the author of five novels, a play, and Mentor: A Memoir. He edited The Workshop: Seven Decades from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and he currently directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University.

Mentor is available Aug 1st, 2010 from Tin House Books.

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