BOOK REVIEW / Skirting the heart of music: Giles Smith on prose with its sleeves up, in Frank Conroy's self-confident first novel: 'Body and Soul' - Frank Conroy: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

FRANK Conroy's novel concerns a prodigal pianist and raises all manner of questions about music - how it is played, how it works, how it sounds. But we're nearly two thirds of the way through before one of the characters braces themselves and drops the big one. 'Don't you think it's practically impossible to write about music directly? It doesn't lend itself to words. I mean, all you can do is skirt round it, sort of.' Which, if true, is bad news for Conroy's book. Are we looking here at something which closes in on music's heart? Or just a 450-page skirt round it, sort of?

It is a mark of Body and Soul's self-confidence that it can raise, undisguised, these doubts about itself. The fact is, it pretty much sees them right off the page. Read one way, the novel is a sustained argument that even if, where music is concerned, literature is no substitute for the real thing, there's still plenty to say about it, plenty about its means and its effects which lends itself to words. And the problem of language's adequacy to the abstraction of music may be one of those dead-end matters anyway. Given that people will talk about music, it's probably best that they do so with words.

Especially if they're going to marshall those words as adeptly as Frank Conroy. The author of an autobiography, Stop-Time, and a collection of short stories, Midair, published in 1985, he directs the reputed Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and perhaps out of this work come his clear and speedy sentences, lined with concrete nouns - prose with its sleeves up. That said, this book is not without its passages of self-consciously literary writing - workshop prose of another kind. 'Deep, deep in his innermost self he felt dormant selves awake and move forward into completeness, as if he were a vessel only now realising its destiny to be filled.' That's a sex scene, if you were wondering.

The 'vessel' is better known to us as Claude Rawlings, who grows up poor in New York around the time of the Second World War. His mother is a taxi driver and a covert political activist, which is a new twist, most taxi drivers being overt political activists. Mr Weisfeld, a kindly music store owner, recognises Claude's talent as a pianist and gives him encouragement and access to teachers and another social realm. We get one of those fumbling poor boy / haughty rich girl encounters, which are always good value. And there's a 'lucky break' scene in which Claude is hanging around backstage with a quintet when their pianist gets stage-fright. Claude picks up the score, flecked with his predecessor's vomit, wipes it down, hits the stage and plays a blinder. And before you can say 'Prokofiev', he's signed to a big shot manager, touring the world, jumping into bed with a violinist, and so forth.

Claude has a bit of word problem in relation to his talent. 'When I get to the piano, something happens to me. I don't know how to describe it. It's like I'm there, but I'm not there. I go into some kind of zone or something.' And Conroy goes along with him, to a degree: 'Claude knew he was on stage . . . but at the same time he was somewhere else, somewhere he could not describe, even to himself - nor did he have the faintest urge to, so heavenly did it seem.' The novel does suffer slightly from the perhaps unstable conviction that an exquisite sensitivity accompanies a musician everywhere. So when Claude watches the movie Some Like it Hot, laughter 'seemed to cleanse him, to pull out the knots in his soul and leave him breathless and blessedly empty.' And elsewhere 'he blossomed out of numbness into the sweet warmth of her.' (That's another sex scene, if you're wondering again.)

But watching Conroy wrestle with Claude brings home how hard it is for a novel to convince you of a character's genius. The improbable is so much more acceptable in reality than in fiction. In life, you have the evidence to back these things up; in a novel, genius can look plain embarrassing, the result of mere assertion. It takes on a comic-book simplicity, unless you're provided with a particularly dense context.

This is where Conroy's research pays off. His note at the end of the book informs us casually that he put in 'several years of reading about music and musicians', and you can tell. The book thunders boldly into musical theory - into harmonic series, tonics and dominants, Schonberg's atonality - a weight of technical detail which plays against and finally counter-balances the other more flighty tendencies. For Claude, scales aren't just tedious exercises: he's attracted to the sound and feel of them: and that one detail tells you more about what it must be to possess a musical talent than, possibly, all the more finely-wrought passages on self-transcendence and abstract beauty. It's not simply a mystical gift, it's also an appetite for practice.

We could perhaps have done without the entry of Aaron Copland, right at the last. Meetings between fictional characters and real ones? Now there's something that really doesn't lend itself to words. But you could always skirt round it.