BOOK REVIEW / Sweet harmony of a poor boy's tale: Body and soul by Frank Conroy: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
'AFTER having played the first four bars two beats G minor two beats C seventh, every bar since they'd sat down, they suddenly found themselves ascending by half tones every bar, creating an entirely new harmonic base upon which they improvised in brand-new scales. G minor C seventh, A-flat minor D-flat seventh, A-flat minor D seventh, B-flat minor, E-flat seventh, and then a quick little half-tone figure to come out exactly right on F dominant seventh. It was so exciting.'

There are many passages like that in Body and Soul, and though I understood barely a word of them they really are exciting. Music is tough to write about and Frank Conroy fares no better than most. But he is good on what it feels like to be a musician and on the feeling of freedom and release one gets when singing the right note.

Conroy's story is a simple Bildungsroman. We are in New York in the company of Claude Rawlings, a poor, scruffy and disenfranchised kid. Mom is a fat, drunken cab-driver, Pop doesn't figure at all, and Claude is stranded in a basement: life goes on above his head. One fidgety day he chances on a piano buried away in a corner of his den. Ivories are tinkled and he is entranced. Soon he is picking out tunes. At Weisfeld's, the local music store, he seeks advice, is greeted with scorn, but manages to impress the owner with his untutored playing. Weisfeld takes the kid under his wing and off they soar. The book ends with Claude striding out on to the stage to accompany the LSO in the first performance of his 'Weisfeld Concerto'.

It won't, perhaps, come as any surprise to learn that Hollywood has snapped up this book. But just because it's almost certainly set to make a lousy movie, don't think that Body and Soul is a lousy book. It's as pleasant a novel as you'll read all year, and its narrative purrs through 450 pages, despite - or because of - the almost complete lack of drama.

Nothing goes wrong for Claude. Well, he doesn't know who his father is and he comes from a home that's not too good, but he still achieves what Freud said are an artist's goals: fame, money and beautiful women. He gets himself a scholarship to an expensive school, falls in with the establishment's Einstein, beds more than one delicious (and rich) woman, and plays duets with the top pianist in the country while still in his teens. Only once, when he is criticised by the parents of one of his girlfriends for having been an urchin, does it seem that things might not work out for him - but then the moment passes, and the girl packs her bags and moves in with him.

And that is why this book, for all its alleged Dickensian qualities, won't quite wash. Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, and Frank Conroy has written a most soothing novel: while reading it we feel good. But only because we are being told a big lie: that life is easy. At one point in this story mention is made of the great American composer Charles Ives, who wrote 'The Unanswered Question'. Body and Soul is full of unquestioned answers.

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