Writer uses mentor as catalyst for memoir

Book Reviews: "Mentor: A Memoir" by Tom Grimes. TinHouse, $16.95.

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"Mentor: A Memoir" by Tom Grimes (TinHouse, $16.95)

Frank Conroy, whose 1967 memoir, "Stop-Time," is a classic of the American genre, was a leading influence on a generation of fiction writers as head of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Tom Grimes is a former student who had small successes as a novelist and playwright. He looks back at his various struggles writing fiction through the life of Mr. Conroy, who died in 2005.

Mr. Grimes proves to be an emotional fellow who ripped up his copy of "Stop-Time" after Mr. Conroy snubbed him at a conference. His anger quickly turned to reverence when Mr. Conroy accepted him into the workshop with a nice grant included.

The memoir gives a quick peek into the hallowed proving ground for writers in the early 1990s at Mr. Conroy's peak of fame. Jealousy and petty sniping dogged Mr. Grimes because he was seen as Mr. Conroy's pet.

The two became regulars at an Iowa City bar as the "mentor" defended Mr. Grimes' embryonic baseball novel.

The book, "Season's End," did find a publisher after intense work rewriting and cutting by Mr. Grimes but, oddly, little input from the Mentor, who was working on his own book.

As Mr. Conroy moves in and out of Mr. Grimes' life, the story grows less and less interesting because it focuses on the autobiographer's surly temper and growing depression while he reacts to a series of small defeats.

"Meaning, sense, clarity" was Mr. Conroy's mantra to his students. Mr. Grimes uses it several times to emphasize the difficulties of being a good writer. He indeed had Frank Conroy as his guide, but he learned that it's the writer who must do the heavy lifting.

The mentor can only watch from the sidelines.

-- By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette book editor

"Damaged" by Alex Kava (Doubleday, $24.95)

We know from the beginning of Alex Kava's novel that the story will hit its climax with heroine FBI profiler Maggie O'Dell in the eye of a Florida hurricane. We also know early on that the villain is going to be a handsome outsider who goes by the pseudonym of Joe Black.

In case we've missed the point, the author reminds us that a Joe Black was the incarnation of the devil in a late '90s Brad Pitt movie. And Ms. Kava's smooth-talking, sun-tanned version of Joe Black bears a distinct resemblance to the Hollywood superstar. It takes the characters dwelling in the Pensacola Coast Guard and coastal beach resorts only a little bit longer to figure out that something isn't quite right.

The book opens when Coast Guard rescue swimmer Liz Bailey brings up a plastic box containing human body parts. She turns out to be an interesting, equally intelligent counterpart of the familiar sleuth who is assigned to the case.

Liz and Maggie quickly become allies in a mostly male world, and Liz ultimately saves her new friend in a life-death situation.

By a coincidence that could happen only in detective fiction, Maggie's on-off boyfriend Benjamin Platt, an Army doctor recently returned from Afghanistan, is in the area at the local Army hospital investigating an unknown deadly virus infecting wounded vets who have recently had amputations.

We learn more, perhaps, than we want to know about prostheses and the use of surrogate body parts, as Ben and Maggie -- both sworn to secrecy about their missions -- work on parallel paths to uncover information about the same crimes.

There's suspense but not much mystery, although the story is fast moving and the characters vividly if not always credibly drawn.


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