Mentor opens with what Hollywood folk call a “meet-cute” scene. While waiting tables at Louie’s Backyard in Key West, Tom Grimes is hungry for his breakthrough as a literary star. Yearning for admission to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has submitted a chapter of his novel-in-progress. When Frank Conroy, director of the prestigious Iowa program, gives a lecture in Key West, Grimes tries to lure him into conversation. Conroy brushes off the pesky stranger, and Grimes rushes home to shred his copy of Conroy’s legendary 1967 memoir Stop-Time. “Fuck Frank Conroy,” he tells his wife Jody. Weeks later, Conroy, unaware of their brief encounter in Florida, calls Grimes to praise his prose and offer a scholarship. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Grimes, who directs the MFA program in creative writing at Texas State University, recalls his relationship with Conroy, who died in 2005, as a shifting blend of student, protégé, colleague, friend and son. Grimes arrives in Iowa City “electrified by hope.” At 32, he enters a classroom convinced he is old man out. Being the program director’s favorite makes Grimes feel even more estranged from fellow students, though the demands of composing and revising guarantee anxiety as a universal condition. In caustic commentary on writing programs published last year in The New Yorker, Louis Menand described them as “a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.” Literary acolytes enroll in workshops seeking mutual support.
Grimes finds consolation in knowing that others share his obsession with assembling words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into barnacles of the imagination. He also provides a chilling account of the seminar as martial arts cage fight in which participants pummel one another’s texts and egos. After Grimes points out flaws in a classmate’s manuscript, the victim avenges himself by disparaging Grimes’ work: “Your misanthropy is matched only by your arrogance. And your snide narrator isn’t a persona, it’s you!”
Proclaiming “I exist in sentences,” Grimes invests his identity in writing. Despite rejection letters and occasionally scathing reviews, he is comforted by Conroy’s abiding faith in his talent. The veteran author, who ends each day drunk and struggles with his own projects, helps the newcomer acquire an agent and some self-confidence. Since Season’s End, the novel Grimes toils at throughout his stint in Iowa, is about a baseball player, Conroy arranges to have him spend time with the New York Mets. “Who are you?” asks a guard at the gate to the team’s Florida training camp. Lacking press credentials, Grimes replies that he is writing a novel. He has no satisfactory answer to the follow-up: “What for?”
Mentor is inside baseball for rabid fans of the writing life. “The ground a writer stands on is no firmer than water,” says Grimes. His own buoyancy is challenged by his sister’s attempted suicide, a book tour in which no one shows up to hear him read and a paranoid delusion that the FBI is pursuing him. Grimes evokes his embarrassment over a rough first novel published before he had mastered the craft. He recalls his vacillation among five publishers bidding for his second one. This is the story of literary apprenticeship, by a man who, buffeted between elation and despair, is intent on sculpting 500 words a day. Conroy is a distant mentor; years go by between their meetings. Though Grimes calls himself Conroy’s “son,” it is never clear what paternity means in a book where the author mentions his real father only in passing, as an embittered figure. Grimes, who discovered his literary vocation working his way through Queensborough Community College as a mortuary janitor, finds inspiration in Conroy’s plucky climb. “Frank is the protagonist of my best novel,” Grimes writes, “and my best novel is this memoir.”
Like Stop-Time, Mentor is its 54-year-old author’s signal achievement. Yet its true theme is Grimes’ ambition, which makes him at first reluctant to settle in San Marcos. But directing the program at Texas State has, he claims, matured him, taught him “that we are all simply writers who travel in the same literary universe.” This book burns most brightly in its reminder that that universe is filled with satellites as well as stars.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth and The Translingual Imagination.