Frank Conroy is one of the few novelists as famed for his administrative work as his literary output. His memoir Stop-Time remains venerated as a classic portrait of American youth, but his stewardship of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is just as treasured by writers. From 1987 to 2005, Conroy presided over the highly regarded program; two graduates from that era included future Pulitzer prize-winner Marilynne Robinson and her peer, Tom Grimes. Grimes didn’t go on to the same success as Robinson or Conroy, which wasn’t part of the plan: Grimes was Conroy’s priority, destined for great things, with access to Thomas Pynchon’s agent and his pick of publishing houses. But things fell apart in a typical bad-luck tale of unfeeling reviews, editorial defections, and publishing-house politics. To date, Grimes has published five novels and one play, but the bedrock of his reputation lies with his directorship of Texas State University’s highly regarded creative-writing program. In Mentor, Grimes measures his career against his friendship with Conroy, and finds the latter a greater achievement.
Mentor is for anyone fascinated by the mundane mechanics of the writing world, and it’s also an eloquently confessional memoir. A struggling writer whose manuscript ended up in Conroy’s life, Grimes went from waiter and rejected writer to golden boy. His background was difficult: with no support from his dad, a failed first marriage, and a suicidal sister, Grimes describes his obstacles without self-pity. His response to his sister’s first attempt: “You think a knife is original? You couldn’t have clubbed yourself to death with a dumbbell?” When a doctor asks why she responds well to that, he replies “We have something in common. We both hate ourselves.”
Grimes describes bouts with depression equally unblinkingly, but Mentor’s clear-eyed focus is his relationship with Conroy, whose star rose again (with Body And Soul) even as Grimes’ career failed to take off. The book sketches out the often brutal critique sessions of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and describes how Grimes’ begrudging move to Texas slowly blossomed into a career more meaningful than his writing. “I’ve never questioned my longing to be a great writer,” he admits. “Now, I’ve nearly run out of time and I may never become one.” But in spite of the occasional forced metaphor that never got workshopped out, Mentor is near-great writing about the mechanics of both writing and publishing, anatomizing Grimes’ career and memorializing Conroy’s.