I know – you’re giddy with anticipation, right? Me too! PAT CONROY MONTH! 2013 is only a couple of hours away here in Pacific Daylight Time. I’ve been planning my reading list for this month ever since around 12:05 am on October 1 of last year. First there were the six months when I planned to read War and Peace, which then gave way to the reality that focus on long novels is not so much one of my strengths these days. My plans became somewhat more realistic but still entirely exciting: for PAT CONROY MONTH! 2013, I plan to read or reread the following four books: The Lords of Discipline; The Boo; Look Homeward, Angel; and The Hobbit. These last two novels are among the many Conroy writes about in his 2009 memoir My Reading Life.
For those who might find this a strange assortment of titles – and/or for those who are wondering what on earth PAT CONROY MONTH! 2013 is – I’ll provide a bit of background information. Last year, it came to our attention that the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma had named September 21, 2012 as “Pat Conroy Day.” We thought it would be nice to honor Mr. Conroy here on Postcards from Purgatory as well – for reasons I will later explain – and we thought that limiting our homage to a single day would be a bit limiting. So last year we declared September to be PAT CONROY MONTH! Jill read My Reading Life and reread The Lords of Discipline. I read The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from my Life and reread The Water is Wide, My Losing Season, and Beach Music.
September of 2012 feels like a long time ago. I was living in Massachusetts. I was working only one or two days a week, still in stasis after quitting my job the previous spring and before moving to San Francisco in December. I spent long hours every day reading books, reviewing books, and procrastinating the process of writing books. Jill and I had only been bookbloggers for a few months, and working on this blog was just so much freaking fun. Just a warning: if I told you about this blog back in the summer or fall of 2012 and you didn’t read it, I probably hate you.
So where am I now? I moved to San Francisco in December. In January I started one part-time job. In March I started another. I spent most of the summer working six or seven days a week, usually for eight or more hours a day. And you know what? My migraines didn’t come back. I didn’t stop sleeping. I made some average mistakes, but as far as I know these mistakes haven’t prompted anyone to hate me. I am resurfacing. I don’t know what it means yet. I don’t know where I’ll be and what my life will look like when PAT CONROY MONTH! rolls around again in 2014, but I like this silly ritual we have. I like the idea of setting a month aside – a month that, of course, used to have a very different meaning for me back when I was teaching high school – to honor that side of ourselves that secretly loves excess and pathos and melodrama and overwrought extended metaphors involving tides.
In the summer of 1991, I discovered both Pat Conroy and John Irving – through movies. The movie adaptation of The World According to Garp played nearly nonstop for a couple of weeks during a free promotional trial of a new cable movie channel. I watched it three or four times before heading out to the now-defunct Sunset Bookstore for a nasty old battered paperback copy of the novel. I didn’t quite know what to make of the fifty-page novella-within-the-novel, but mostly I loved it. When I finished it, I headed back to the bookstore for nasty, beat-up copies of The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire, and – my favorite – A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Later that summer, I happened upon the movie adaptation of The Lords of Discipline and made a similar pilgrimage to the bookstore for a copy of the novel. I read it in only a few days and then returned for The Great Santini, The Water is Wide, and The Prince of Tides. I read them all, finishing a book every few days, rereading favorite passages, smudging pages and creasing spines.
That summer was special to me for a few reasons. First, it was the last summer I spent without a job – until 2012, that is. Don’t get me wrong: I was not one of those people who moans about soul-sucking summer jobs that wrenched my childhood away from me prematurely. My summer job in high school was at a preschool, and I worked three hours a day. Big deal. But still – it was a responsibility, and it meant waking up early in the morning, and it had a way – as jobs do – of becoming the axis around which my days were organized. The summer of 1991 was my last summer without such an axis. I surrendered to the adolescent sleep cycle: up until four in the morning, sleeping until noon or later. I read and lazed and took long walks and read and read and read.
Second, I finally made the leap from the ‘Young adult’ section of the bookstore to the ‘Adult’ section. I had known for a while that there was little left in the ‘Young adult’ section that interested me, but I hadn’t gotten my bearings in the ‘Adult’ section yet. John Irving and Pat Conroy changed that. I was converted. Both Irving and Conroy see the world in grand terms. They are fond of superlatives and excess and characters who are larger than life. Their novels are also dark and sometimes filled with cruelty. People say and do horrible things to each other in these books. At fifteen I had a very easy life, but my internal monologue was dark too. I often saw the worst in people – especially in myself. In the circle of my daily life – made up of home, friends, and school – I had no reason to believe that darkness and cynicism were real forces of energy and vitality in the world. In her review of The Lords of Discipline last September, Jill wrote that “The Lords of Discipline was unlike anything [she] had ever read. There was a plethora of profanity. People were called ‘douchebags,’ and ‘abortions’ and ‘knobs.’ People who know [her] know that [she is] far from pristine in [her] language, and [she] did curse a fair amount for a teenager, but this was different. This was a land of men calling each other horrible things. The language in this book affected me a lot. The violence did too.” I was the one who recommended this book to Jill back then, and I never knew that she had had this reaction to it. I was surprised, since my own reaction to The Lord of Discipline at fifteen was “Thank God that someone sees the world as darkly as I do.” I felt as if I was finally reading a book written in my own native language.
Years later, my friend Mary explained it to me this way: “You can’t trust anyone without a mean streak. If someone isn’t an asshole, you think they must be hiding something from you.”
Here’s something else that happened that summer: I wrote my first full-length short story. I planned to imitate Garp and write a short story every month – for the rest of my life, presumably. Are you ready for what I wrote about? My story was about a man who is newly diagnosed with HIV who went home to his family’s house for the first time in a decade or so. And do you want to know what he did there? He raped his brothers. Yes – brothers in the plural. Nice touch, no? Anyone could engage in incestuous anal rape once. It takes a true literary genius to conjure up a character with the wherewithal to commit this act four or five or six times in the space of a couple of hours (Dude had a lot of brothers).
The title of the story was “The Peacemaker.” Somebody call the irony police.
I don’t know exactly what I was thinking when I wrote that story. It could be something as simple as the idea that – after a steady diet of The Prince of Tides and The Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp – I had developed the idea that rape was a mandatory component of novels from the adult section of the bookstore. I could also have been trying to out-do these novels on some level – and seeing as how The Prince of Tides contains a rape scene that involves a tiger and I’m pretty sure that The Hotel New Hampshire contains a rape scene that involves a bear – out-doing these books in their violence and cruelty was no easy task. Maybe I wanted to scare myself, to see just how depraved a character I could create. I don’t know. What I do now is that some version of this character – this thoroughly horrific sociopath – has weaseled his way into every piece of fiction I have ever written since that summer. My whole writing life has been a process of tempering this kind of excess.
Third, it was just after this summer ended that Jill and I became friends. When we were freshmen, we didn’t even know each other. We met through mutual friends and ended up on the novice crew team together. I don’t remember when I first passed along The Lords of Discipline and my other favorites along to her, but I know it was early on that school year, when we were sophomores. As far as I can remember, my friendship with Jill was my first friendship in which books played a vital role. Sure, I had had other friends who liked to read, but I didn’t talk about books much with those friends. We had our reading lives on the side, and that was fine, but our time together was spent on other things. But in my friendship with Jill, books are part of the essence of the friendship – a friendship that has included Pat Conroy from almost the very beginning.
So there you go. Do you hate me now because of that horrible story I wrote, or because I said that a novel about a bunch of nasty racist sadists is “written in my native language”? I don’t know why violence fascinates me. I don’t know why books in which people are horrible to each other strike me as more honest than books about nice people, but I don’t think I will gain anything by hiding the fact that I am bored by goodness. I do want to point out, though, that there is always a deep goodness in Conroy’s novels – and this goodness is not boring. It’s honest and hard-won and real. I plan to write more about this idea – the tension between benevolence and violence – when I write my reviews this month.
So, anyway, it’s time for me to go to bed. During the night, while I’m sleeping, an overweight, white-haired man will enter my home and eat all of my cookies and milk. In turn he’ll leave some freshly-caught shrimp and mayonnaise and maybe even some fudge made with chocolate-flavored laxative. And I’ll savor his gifts slowly – even when I know his books to be a bit overwrought – throughout September, a month that to me has always meant renewal of some sort or another.