My Reading Life with Pat Conroy

I was saddened to learn that Pat Conroy died yesterday (March 4, 2016), at the age of 70. In his obituary, the New York Times says that Conroy’s “legion of admirers . . . hung on his every word, entranced by the naked emotionalism of his male characters, the Lowcountry atmosphere and the page-turning Southern yarns.” Two years ago, I wrote about Conroy’s last book, The Death of Santini (published in 2013) and my long nearly 30-year membership in the Pat Conroy fan club.

How many aspiring writers have been told to “write what you know”? If Pat Conroy was given that timeworn advice, he’s certainly taken it to heart.  Both his novels and his memoirs are about what he knows — growing up as the son of an abusive Marine Corps fighter pilot, attending the Citadel as a basketball player and budding writer, losing a brother to suicide, coping with a sister’s mental illness. In his latest memoir, The Death of Santini, Conroy says, ” My books have always been disguised voyages into that archipelago of souls known as the Conroy family.”

coverI discovered Pat Conroy in 1987, with a paperback copy of The Prince of Tides. My first baby was born that year, and when he was asleep, I was reading Pat Conroy. As tired as I was, I stayed up late, immersed in the drama of the Wingo family — a violent and cruel father . . . a suicidal poet sister . . . escaped convicts on the loose . . . and a ferocious pet tiger. When I finished all 664 pages, I couldn’t wait to read more of Conroy’s writing. I quickly went through The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline — and then I was finished. The books went on the shelf, and my love affair with big, fat books continued when Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities grabbed my attention.

Conroy disappeared for years, and finally published Beach Music in 1995. I wanted to love the book, but found I couldn’t get past the flowery prose and stilted dialogue. So it was with trepidation that I picked up My Losing Season several years later. On the surface, this memoir recounts Conroy’s senior year playing basketball at the Citadel, but it’s really about his relationship with his father, his coach, and his teammates, and finding his voice as a writer.

Do you think that Hemingway knew he was a writer at twenty years old? No, he did not. Or Fitzgerald, or Wolfe. This is a difficult concept to grasp. Hemingway didn’t know he was Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man. Faulkner didn’t know he was William Faulkner. But they had to take the first step. They had to call themselves writers. That is the first revolutionary act a writer has to make. It takes courage. But it’s necessary.

Even though I’m not interested in college basketball, I was captivated by Conroy’s story of failure and how it shaped him into the person and writer he became. It remains one of my favorite memoirs . . . along with My Reading Life, which Conroy published in 2010. (I wasn’t enamored with South of Broad, Conroy’s 2009 novel.) My Reading Life isn’t exactly a memoir; it’s a collection of essays about the powerful role of reading in Conroy’s difficult life. A person can’t be a writer without first being a reader, and Conroy tells us how he became a reader:

My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always. She wanted me to read everything of value, and she taught me to out-read my entire generation, as she had done hers. . . I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school because I knew that I would come to the writing of books without the weight of culture and learning that a well-established, confidently placed family could offer its children. I collected those long, melancholy lists of the great books that high school English teachers passed out to college-bound students, and I relied on having consumed those serious litanies of books as a way to ease my way into the literary life.

Even today, I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch. Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for novelist who burns with the ambition to get better.

The Death of Santini covers some familiar ground — the relationship between Conroy and his terrifyingly abusive father, Don Conroy (a.k.a. “The Great Santini”). But this is a story of redemption — Don Conroy has transformed himself from a monster into a loving father and grandfather. At the end of The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo (Pat Conroy’s alter ego), says, “I learned that I needed to love my mother and father in all their flawed, outrageous humanity. And in families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness. But it is the mystery of life that sustains me now.” Fact reflects fiction in The Death of Santini, for Conroy shows us how he is able to forgive Don Conroy for his vicious cruelty towards his family. The writing of the book was a necessary part of Conroy’s healing; he says in the prologue:

Mom and Dad, I need to go back there once again.  I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time . . . Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.

Don Conroy was, according to his son, far more cruel and abusive than Bull Meecham, the”Great Santini” of the novel. When Conroy sent his editor a first draft of the novel, she told him she was troubled by his potrayal of the Colonel — “no  reader could expect to believe that such an unsavory man could exist without a single virtue to recommend him. To make him credible, I had to include scenes that displayed a softer and kinder man.” This softer and kinder man eventually came to life, in the person of the elderly Don Conroy. Throughout his life, he enjoyed attending his son’s book signings; in fact, father and son made a pact that no customer would ever leave without a book signed by them both. (Of course, he often bragged that his line for autographs was longer.) He was enormously proud of Conroy’s success, and, in fact, wrote a letter to his entire extended family defending The Great Santini:

Pat is a very clever storyteller and I was totally absorbed and encountered every emotion, as reading very slowly, life with father unfolded in this work of fiction. It was as though I knew some of the characters personally . . . Pat did a superb job in developing the character Mary Ann . . . with all modesty, fell far short on Santini — which is quite understandable with such a dashing and complex character.

Yes, Don Conroy is a complex character — and Conroy does an extraordinary job of portraying that complexity in The Death of Santini. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Conroy describes his father’s grief after his youngest son’s funeral: “Forgiven at last, my father sat in a chair in the living room, not even trying to control his crying. His kids surrounded him, because his love of Tom provided us an understanding of his own love for all of us. It was a day of surreal, uncommon beauty.”

Conroy closes the book with the eulogy he wrote for his father’s funeral. Is this really the last time Conroy will “examine the wreckage” of his tumultuous family? In an interview in BookPage, he claims it is: “I’m going to try to leave the family in peace. There are other things to write about.” We’ll see.

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  1. Pingback: A Southern Writer Reflects | The Literary Cafe / thelitcafe.com

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