Throughout most of BODY & SOUL, I found the writing and the story compelling, although those qualities grow somewhat sluggish in the final quarter of the novel, but not enough to turn me off. Unfortunately, this teacher of writing committed a major story-telling faux pas by using a single sentence to look into the future of Claude Rawlings, the protagonist, undermining Aristotle’s rule that the ending should be surprising but inevitable.
Claude is the son of a very damaged woman, a Communist, grossly large (325 pounds; over 6 feet), who raises him with near criminal indifference. Emma, the mother, is saved by a black man, who moves in with her and works as a cabbie with her. In New York City in 1940s that was a relatively unusual mix, but as in any good novel, the writer has a reason for revealing the mother’s indifference to the race of her lovers.
Claude has an innate musical talent, which he works very hard to develop and throughout most of his life he appears extraordinarily fortunate in that at every turn people want to help him develop his obvious talent as a pianist and creator of music. He doesn’t have any idea who is natural father is, but Mr. Weisfeld (which I would translate as Whitefield—apparently as a name chosen purposely.) a one-time brilliant Polish composer, who lost his entire family to a bomb in the opening days of the Nazi invasion of Poland, becomes in effect the father substitute who loves and nurtures Claude. Mr. Weisfeld runs a music store on Third Avenue in the 1940s and 50s down the street from the basement apartment where Claude lives with his mother.
Through his music, Claude is exposed to the very rich of Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, gets a scholarship to an exclusive private boys’ high school in Manhattan, gets a scholarship to college, and is enabled to make a very good living at what he loves. His first love is a snooty rich girl—he loves her, but she doesn’t even consider him other than to recognize he is a talented kid. He marries a wealthy girl, who is the cousin of his first love. Claude is carried through most of the book on a wave of success UNTIL he discovers his semen is dead; he and his wife can’t have children. He falls into a depression; she leaves and divorces him. Yet, good fortune never stops smiling on Claude.
In England for the performance of his first major symphony, he runs into his first love, now relatively poor, humble, very sexy and beautiful, a recent divorcee from a wealthy man, and she has a child. She and Claude pop into bed for constant and fantastic love making. This is the point at which Conroy fails the reader by telegraphing the end: Claude wants to marry his first love, she says no. When he is 45, still handsome and inviting as a great musician, she envisions him with a 25-year-old adoring fan on each arm, while she will grow older. And in parenthesis Conroy tells us that is indeed what will happen. For the first time in the book, Conroy leaves Claude to devote a chapter to the conversation between a gay black Jazz musician and his black musician boyfriend in which their conversation reveals, that the Jazz musician, who looks pretty white, is Claude’s father, that Claude, who looks somewhat Italian, was the product of a one-night stand, the only time the Jazz man fucked a woman. So now we know the innate talent comes from.
Claude and the Jazz musician play the piano together in an incredible performance, but Claude never discovers that this man was his father. In the end, Claude who is crazily in love with his first love is drawn away from her by an opportunity to fulfill his ambitions as a concert performer. Music has shaped and directed his life and in the end is more important then a mere woman. At the same time while he is incredibly creative as a musician, he isn’t as a man—can’t have babies. The book ends with him going on stage for his big London performance.
--A subplot of the novel is that the very rich are very unhappy despite all their money. They lead rigid, boring, meaningless, limited, class-conscious lives and commit incest of sorts: Claude’s first love, as a teenager, fucking her stepfather. That drives home the point that the rich are socially incestuous, wanting their children to marry only other rich people.