I read this book for the first time in the early months of 2003. The basement apartment I lived in that year – an on-campus apartment provided by my first boarding-school job – was huge and spacious with three bedrooms and a magnificent kitchen, but on winter afternoons it was the darkest, most dismal living space I have ever seen anywhere. Smelling of mold and hidden wetness, the apartment received scant natural light even on bright days through its eight brick-lined window wells, which were covered with slanted sheets of Plexiglass that occasionally served their intended purpose of preventing birds and rodents from falling into the window wells, breaking their bones, and starving to death. When snow fell, it blanketed the Plexiglass so no light entered the apartment at all. That winter my classes ended at one or two o’clock most afternoons, and my JV swim practices didn’t start until five. Under the anemic overhead lights of my tomblike apartment, I savored Pat Conroy’s newest book slowly, cherishing his overwritten sentences and suspecting that this book might have something to tell me about some strange new facts in my life: that I was coaching high school sports, that I was enjoying coaching high school sports, and that I was beginning to suspect that maybe (possibly?) I was actually a little bit good at it.
When I finished the book, my thoughts went something like this: Good book. Great, in fact. Possibly life-changing. But wait. What’s a point guard?
All of this is a long way of telling you that for me, Pat Conroy’s books aren’t really books; they’re mirrors. I look at them and, through some strange affinity with this author that I only partially understand, I don’t see them for what they are in themselves but for who I am as I am reading them. As far as I was concerned in 2003, this was not a book about basketball. I read it and I smelled not sweat socks and orange rubber but the stifling chlorine of the pool where I coached every evening and the spilled gasoline leaking out of the launch from which I had coached the girls’ novice crew team in the fall. And when I reread Conroy’s books, they are mirrors not of who I am now as I reread, but of who I was when I read them the first time around.
I’ve been a little quiet here on Postcards from Purgatory lately, and I am sorry about that. But you see – I’ve been time traveling.
My Losing Season is Pat Conroy’s memoir of his career as a high school and college basketball player with a focus on his final year playing for the Citadel. If you’re familiar with Conroy’s novels and other nonfiction books, this one will feel like a “Greatest Hits” compilation, with plenty of details about the Citadel familiar to readers of The Lords of Discipline and details about Conroy’s family that readers will recognize from The Great Santini and his other novels. However, one of the reasons his last season as a college athlete is so significant for Conroy is that he sees the birth of his identity as a novelist as absolutely intrinsic to the end of his formal athletic career – so this is in many ways also a memoir of his coming of age as a writer. The prose is lush, sometimes overwritten, and searingly honest in Conroy’s usual fashion; he is not afraid either to boast about his accomplishments or to confess how deeply he is sometimes caught in traps of shame and self-hatred. The book is both well researched – Conroy not only tracked down and interviewed all of his teammates and his coach while writing this novel but also studied news articles about the team from a wide variety of local and college newspapers and, when possible, accessed and studied films of the games his team played during that final season – and deeply personal. I recommend it cautiously; I fully admit that I will read every word that Conroy writes in spite of his tendency toward certain excesses, but I think this book would annoy readers who are looking either for a straightforward, journalistic memoir about basketball (which this isn’t) or a sprawling narrative more in keeping with Conroy’s novels. However, as a book that traces the effects of sports on the complicated psyche of a young man coming into his own as both a person and a writer – and as an insight into the man who wrote The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and other novels – this book is well worth a reader’s time.
As the title suggests, this is very much a book about failure – or, at least, about perceived failure. In his prologue (which, by the way, is only 14 pages long but took me over two hours to read, not because it is difficult or bad but because of the abrupt and disorienting way that it dropped me back into 2003 and everything that year stands for in my own life), Conroy writes, “Winning makes you think you’ll always get the girl, land the job, deposit the million-dollar check, win the promotion, and you grow accustomed to a life of answered prayers. Winning shapes the soul of bad movies and novels and lives. It is the subject of thousands of insufferably bad books and is often the sworn enemy of art” (14). I have a feeling that these words barely touched me back in 2003 – again, I had only the barest inklings that winter of how dark and miserable my life was about to get, and I think I largely saw my life as taking the infinitely upward trajectory that I envisioned when I was in high school, college, and grad school. I probably scanned the prologue quickly, taking more notice of Conroy’s lurid description of the dissolution of his second marriage and his reunion with one of his basketball teammates while on a book tour for Beach Music than of the wisdom of his words about failure.
The first several chapters of the book relate the years prior to Conroy’s enrollment at the Citadel – years in which he and his family moved from town to town as dictated by his father’s Marine Corps career, in which basketball entered Conroy’s life as a way to make friends quickly in new schools, distract himself from the misery of his violent home, find positive role models in his coaches, and try (without success) to elevate himself in his father’s eyes. In his teens, basketball served as Conroy’s antidote to failure – he saw almost universal success on his community and high school teams and then received attention from college recruiters and, beginning in his sophomore year at the Citadel, a college basketball scholarship.
Next, this book focuses on Conroy’s four years at the Citadel, with attention paid to his first year in a chapter that is essentially a redundant experience for anyone who has read The Lords of Discipline, and then with detailed attention paid to his senior basketball season. He devotes considerable attention to each of his teammates (the majority of whom, with typical Conroyvian hyperbole, are referred to as “the greatest athlete the Citadel had ever seen” or some such thing over the course of the memoir), to his coach, to some of his teachers, and to himself, actually devoting a full chapter to each game of that season. Other than Conroy’s own younger self, the most constant presence in this portion of the book is his college coach, Mel Thompson. Mel is variously described as an Ahab figure, as “demon-driven” (341), as a “dark icon of madness” (341), as “the dark father of our college years, but worthy and manly and volcanic” (397) – and, more generally, as a Level One Son of a Bitch. Conroy attributes the total psychological and emotional dissolution of several of his teammates to Mel’s anger, moodiness, irrationality, totalitarianism, and total refusal to offer his team any praise or positive reinforcement at all.
In some ways this is a book about superego development. The working definition of the superego that I’ve always relied on is “the internalization of the parental voice” or, at least, the internalization of the voices of the collective authority of one’s culture. The literal parental voices that Conroy internalized as a child were unfathomably destructive; however, we are all parented by people and by forces other than the individuals who raised us. For me, one of the most interesting elements of this book is the “voice” that begins speaking to Conroy during a game against Loyola University in New Orleans in the middle of his senior basketball season. At this point in the season, Conroy has mostly been serving as part of the second string on his team; he spent most games on the bench, and his role in practice was to push and challenge the starting players – whose role in practice and in life in general was to be tormented and demeaned and manipulated by Mel Thompson.
The first thing that Conroy’s internal voice tells him is to stop listening to Mel Thompson: “He was my coach, but I was my master. Whenever I got into the game for the rest of the year, I would play it as I was born to play it, I would play it with reckless abandon. If Mel Thompson did not like it, he could choose not to play me. I felt a loosening, an opening up. I had done many things in my life but this marked the first time I had felt myself change” (185). Conroy later recognizes this voice as the beginning of his awareness of himself as a novelist – as someone whose job is to see through the surfaces of other people. He calls this voice “the truest part of [him], the most valiant flowering of [his] character, a source of pure light and water streaming out of unexplored caverns deep within [him]. Unlike [Conroy], this voice knew nothing of shyness or reserve or shame or despair. This voice rang with authority and spoke with a blazing, resonant accuracy, with the clearness and certainty of church bells heard on bright Sundays” (217).
The central irony of this book is that, for Conroy personally, his senior basketball season was anything but a failure. His team had a losing record and a miserable experience, but Conroy himself was named team MVP at the end of the season and also received the Citadel’s sportsmanship award. These objective truths about Conroy’s success operate in this memoir the way time operates in a Faulkner novel. Just as Faulkner allows time to slow down and speed up in order to mimic the human perception of time, Conroy minimizes and dismisses much of the evidence of his success in order to mimic the way he felt. After I finished the book, I reread several accounts of individual basketball games and realized that many of these chapters contain deep incongruities. Conroy relates the facts of each game – that he scored twenty-five points, for example, or that the opposing coach paid him a compliment or that his coach bypassed taller, more athletic players to place him in the starting lineup – yet he relates them so obliquely that even the reader doesn’t recognize that the mood of the chapter doesn’t match the facts that are being presented.
The moral of the story: the voices that speak to us in our heads are powerful. They are more powerful than facts and statistics. The adult Conroy who has reflected on his losing season does finally acknowledge that he was able to succeed on his miserable team with his miserable coach while so many of his teammates became so depressed that they could barely function because an atmosphere of misery and dejection was “birthplace and hermitage and briar patch to [Conroy] – a despair with no windows or exits, a futility that made hope vain and the future unthinkable” (184). I have read a book that makes a similar argument about Abraham Lincoln: that he had lived so long in a state of constant depression that when the terrible years of the Civil War arrived he was functioning in his own instinctive element, and his practiced ability to think clearly in the midst of great darkness made him the incomparable leader that he was.
In his final chapter, Conroy reiterates his initial premise that losing shapes both our characters and our inner voices more than winning and success ever can. I think of it in terms of potential energy. If a person is perched at a height, in a place of success, happiness, and status, he possesses a figurative form of potential energy that we all remember learning about in high school physics – except that in the human psyche, I think this potential energy manifests itself as fear. A person at the top of a ladder must always fear falling. To exist already in a heap of bruises at the bottom of the ladder brings its own set of challenges – but the fear of falling is gone. Fear distorts our vision like a pair of tinted glasses, and when these glasses are knocked off or broken at the bottom of the ladder, we see the world with surprising clarity. Conroy writes, “Loss invites reflection and reformulating and a change of strategies. Loss hurts and bleeds and aches. Loss is always ready to call out your name in the night. Loss follows you home and taunts you at the breakfast table, follows you to work in the morning. You have to make accommodations and broker deals to soften the rabbit punches that loss brings to your daily life. You have to take the word “loser” and add it to your resumé and walk around with it on your name tag as it hand-feeds you your own shit in dosages too large for even great beasts to swallow” (395).
The first draft of this review was a whole lot longer than the one you are reading right now, and it did more to dig into the events of 2003 and 2004 in my own life and into the idea of why Pat Conroy’s books serve as “mirrors” for me. But ultimately I decided to cut back on the personal stuff – this is Pat Conroy’s month, after all, not mine – but to rework the personal story I was telling into some other form. And that’s what I’m doing, in an essay that I’m calling “The Day I Crashed the Bus.” It’s not finished yet, but it’s getting there – and it’s funny and sad and has a clever overarching metaphor and does all those other things that personal essays are supposed to do. It also wears Pat Conroy’s stylistic fingerprint all over it, but I’m thinking that a little time and revision will temper that. I’m sorry that I took so long to write this review, and I’m also sorry that I foreshadowed some things in its introductory paragraphs that I did not deliver, and I’m sorry that this essay isn’t the beautifully plaited-together hybrid of book review and personal narrative that I had envisioned. My inner perfectionist in in the driver’s seat these days – and as I once said to a hated boss who had used that word to describe me, “If I were a perfectionist, don’t you think I’d find a way to be PERFECT a little more often?”
So yeah. Inner voices. Have a nice weekend, everyone.