Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Midair" (1984)

Story by Frank Conroy not available online.

Frank Conroy's story is a kind of object illustration of primal Freudian human psychology, sprawling across the long life of Sean Kennedy. It starts in 1942, when Sean is 6. His father has appeared, escaped from a mental institution, though we don't discover that until later in the scene. He is bursting with a crazy energy, taking Sean and Sean's sister Mary to their mother's apartment, which is locked. They break in through the fire escape. At 6, Sean barely even knows his father, hardly remembers him. Mary is older and knows him and loves him. But he is behaving erratically and scares both of them. Then authorities show up to capture him. The father tries to escape by taking Sean and climbing out on the windowsill before finally giving in. In psychological terms, the imprint has been made. The innate fear of heights is focused in Sean with a mix of feelings about his father, insanity, safety, and security. Sean will have no memory of the incident with his father, but from there the story moves across the years and decades, alighting on scenes where the mix of associations is touched: In college, where he meets his wife, to whom he is drawn but doesn't seem to love ("... she is more intelligent than Sean, and ambitious in a way he is not.... She is older than him"). At 30, trying to break into the apartment of his mistress by crawling across the steep-pitched roof of the building. Hearing that a young girl has fallen from an apartment window to her death, he embraces his children tightly in a spontaneous expression of love. These scenes and others represent echoes and fragments of the episode with his father. It's a portrait of a life with grace and meaning, yet not entirely accessible on that level by its owner, Sean. Of course there is a moment of clarity toward the end—it's an epiphany story. It feels lived and authentic, even if somewhat conveniently assembled. Fear of heights, humiliations of the father—the building blocks are solid even if there's temptation to complain it's obvious. It's done well and ultimately that carries it. The narration is third-person omniscient, staying close to Sean yet covering a time span of 50 years or more. In fact, I think I like best the way the scope is handled, skipping across the years but landing firmly in concrete places. Concrete, but not bludgeoning, merely well observed and quick to move on to the next point.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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