Musical Wunderkind Makes It to the Top

BODY & SOUL By Frank Conroy Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence 450 pp., $24.95

WHY do publishers - and the media - choose to hype one book and not another?

When it comes to books that contain sensationalistic material, the reasons, alas, are all too obvious. What is harder to account for is why one commercially-oriented, mass-market writer among thousands is singled out to be the one that everyone will be reading, or why one worthy, ``serious'' writer among hundreds suddenly becomes the ``find'' of the season.

A case in point is Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, whose first novel, ``Body & Soul,'' is being published 26 years after his literary debut with an autobiography, ``Stop-Time.'' (A volume of short stories, ``Midair,'' surfaced in 1985.)

``Body & Soul'' is a pleasant enough novel, but certainly not an exceptional one. It is not particularly well-written, or brilliant, or touching, or profound, or original. It is, however, a fairly good read, featuring a sympathetic hero whose musical genius allows him to rise from the squalor of his tenement childhood to the heights of artistic inspiration and world renown.

When we first meet cute, curly-haired, dark-eyed Claude Rawlings, he's a little boy cooped up in a Third Avenue basement apartment who listens, transfixed, to the sounds of the world passing by on the street above. Claude's mother Emma, a 300-pound taxi-driver, is not a cruel parent, but she is neglectful and uninterested in her son, reserving what devotion she has for the local Communist Party cell to which she secretly belongs. A former showgirl, she's jettisoned hopes of a singing career and barely looks at the dusty old piano she's kept from former days. Claude discovers its magic on his own.

He wanders into a neighborhood music store, where he asks the good-hearted refugee proprietor, Mr. Weisfeld, to explain the connection between musical sounds and those funny marks on the printed page. The rest, as they say, is history.

The child's extraordinary gifts soon become evident to everyone who hears him play. The wise and knowledgeable Weisfeld sees to it that Claude studies with all the best teachers, whose various approaches are interestingly described.

Although Claude trains as a classical musician, he's strongly attracted to the innovations of jazz. Conroy, himself a jazz pianist, writes intelligently and informatively about all aspects of his hero's musical career.

With the onset of adolescence, Claude is smitten with the chilly charms of a beautiful, aloof rich girl. He imagines a romance like the one between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in his favorite movie, ``A Place in the Sun.'' Indeed, there is a lot about this novel that reminds one of a 1950 Hollywood movie: the handsome young hero, the kindly old mentor, the cold, proud beauty, the predictable story line, and the general preponderance of surface over depth.

This is an appealing, if unsophisticated, novel that uses the naivete of its young hero as a cover for its own lack of sophistication. It is credible as far as it goes, but its truths sometimes fade into truisms:

``Claude was excited with his prospects in music. He wanted to play, but above all now, suddenly he saw it clearly, to compose. There was much work to be done. He confessed that he knew he might be fooling himself, that there was no way to know if he had the talent to write great music, but he was going to try.''

``Body & Soul'' is not exactly great literature - or even better-than-average literature - but readers may well enjoy its upbeat, believable account of a musical Horatio Alger playing his way to the top.

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