Last week I finished Pat Conroy’s memoir The Death of Santini, and I have mixed feelings about it. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you know that Pat Conroy has a special place here at Postcards from Purgatory. We love the way his books transport us back to the way we felt and saw the world when we were fifteen and sixteen. They remind us of the origins of our friendship. And when his mixed metaphors and overwrought analogies make us cringe, they also remind us of how far we have come as readers and writers since we were in high school – and coming a long way from high school is a good thing, even though high school was a lot of fun. You could say that Pat Conroy is the mascot of our blog – with all the affection and condescension that the word “mascot” implies.
This memoir is clearly a swan song of some kind. Conroy mentions several times that he is writing about his family for the last time. Before I read this book, I thought that some of Conroy’s recent novels, like Beach Music and South of Broad, were not directly about his family, but when I learned more about the extended branches of his family by reading The Death of Santini, I realized that even these later novels are semi-autobiographical. So then I started to worry that The Death of Santini presages Pat Conroy’s retirement from writing – which would be just awful.
Pat Conroy: I reserve the right to mock your books when they become far-fetched and when they embark on their nineteenth or twentieth tide metaphor, but holy shit, you can’t stop writing. You just can’t. If it’s about coming up with ideas for new books, you can have some of mine. I’ll never have time to write all the books I want to write, especially at my current output of about a page a day. They’re all yours if you want them. All you have to do is ask.
I’ll provide just a bit of background for the uninitiated: Pat Conroy grew up moving from base to base as part of a Marine family. His childhood was not only horrifically violent but also unstable, and he is scarred not only by his father’s violence but by his mother’s dishonesty and erratic behavior, by her tendency to treat Pat (the eldest child) as a co-parent aligned with her against her husband, by his mother’s obsession with social climbing and a certain vanity and desire for prestige that prompted her to ignore her children, by the family’s constant moves from one base to another, and by his violent and oppressive college education at the Citadel. In this memoir, Conroy states that he has “been tested by American males as few writers have ever been,” and while I wasn’t aware that anyone was keeping statistics on this subject, I have no doubt that it’s true.
When Pat Conroy published The Great Santini – a minimally fictionalized novel about his family – in 1976, all kinds of interesting things happened. First, friends and relatives of his father appeared out of nowhere to assail Conroy about the scathing portrait he painted of his father. This response surprised Pat Conroy and made him realize that his family appeared to most outsiders like a happy, normal family, and that his family was breached by a schism between its public identity and its private identity. Shortly after The Great Santini appeared, Don Conroy (Pat’s father) disappeared for a week. No one knew where he went. When he resurfaced, he came to Pat’s door early in the morning and handed Pat a copy of a letter that he had sent to everyone in his family, declaring his support for Pat and insisting that he would have no patience with family members who continued to denounce it. “No one fucks with one of my kids,” Don Conroy said. Somebody call the irony police.
What happened to the Conroy family after the publication of The Great Santini is worthy of an entire undergrad senior seminar in the sign and the symbol and the media being the message and whatnot. (Brief aside: while I admit that my memory may be editing out some details, I remember doing very few things while I was getting my undergrad English degree besides worrying about the way texts become reality and reality becomes texts and the observer changing the observed by virtue of his observation and maybe also something about signifiers? And while The Death of Santini is not high art – which is not to say that it’s not a good book – I remember at least half a dozen of my old English professors who could have an absolute pipe-smoking field day about what happened to the Conroy family after The Great Santini was published and later filmed).
Here are the basics: first, the family couldn’t continue to deceive itself in terms of its public and private identities any more. Different family members handled this traumatic yet freeing event in different ways. Peg Conroy – Pat’s mother – read aloud from The Great Santini in court during her divorce from Don. Don began visiting Pat every single morning for coffee and conversation, a ritual that Pat describes as unwanted and almost a form of harassment, but that also forced both Don and Pat into each other’s faces. They had to confront each other. The Great Santini represented a fork in the road that could have either led to total estrangement between Pat and Don or else to acceptance and recognition and forgiveness. There could have been no middle ground – partly because of Don’s combative personality. Pat suggests (though I’m not sure that he ever directly states) that his father mostly deserves the credit for the fact that they managed to take the latter path. His short retreat the week after the book was published aside, Pat’s father refused ever to back away from Pat or from the bizarre emotional cocktail that The Great Santini must have stirred up within him. Don Conroy has got to be one of the most confrontational human beings ever to walk the earth (note the Conroyvian hyperbole), and a man of lesser courage and ego probably never could have stood up to the humiliation and guilt that The Great Santini must have inspired in him (note, though, that according to Pat, Don Conroy never admitted to much in the way of humiliation or guilt. His apologies took the form of actions: his daily breakfasts with Pat, his financial support of Pat’s sister Carol Ann, his transformation into a model grandfather, his acceptance of his wife’s remarriage and willingness to cooperate with and even befriend her second husband.)
Next, Don Conroy started showing up at Pat’s book signings. The image is a delightful one: Pat sits beside a pile of books in a bookstore or public library or town hall somewhere, and somewhere at the far end of the room a boastful voice shouts, “Stand by for a fighter pilot!” Part of the audience – those who hadn’t read the book yet – must have been absolutely mystified by this encounter, but the real treat came for those who had already read the book or knew in detail what it was about. I think if I had been there I would have gotten chills down my spine. I would have wondered if somehow there had been a rip in the fabric of the space-time continuum and I was at the Enchantment under the Sea Dance and my mother was out in the car being raped by Biff and at any moment my right hand might start to disappear. That’s how weird this moment must have been.
(Another aside: You know how when you’re a kid people are always asking you to write five-paragraph essays about which person, living or dead, you would like to have dinner with? I never did well with that question when I was a kid, but I think now I have an answer: I would like to have dinner with Don Conroy. Somewhere in public. I’ll buy dinner, but he’ll have to pick up his own bar tab. That dude can drink.)
But here’s the part that’s really going to make Marshall McLuhan wet his pants: not long after the publication of The Great Santini, Pat Conroy sold the movie rights, and pretty soon a Hollywood crew came to town and started filming scenes from the life of the Conroy family right in same town where the events happened in the first place. Robert Duvall played Don, and the real Don was constantly dropping remarks about how puny and wimpy Duvall was. Michael O’Keefe played a teenaged Pat Conroy, and Blythe Danner played Pat’s mother Peg. One of the signature scenes in The Great Santini (both the movie and the novel) is the one in which the boy (Ben in the novel; Pat Conroy in real life) defeats his father in a one-on-one basketball game for the first time, and then his father follows him into the house, up the stairs, and into his room while dribbling the ball off the son’s head and taunting him, saying that Ben (i.e. Pat) just got lucky and is too much of a wuss to play for two out of three, and that sort of thing. But here’s the deal: Pat and Don Conroy were present for the shooting of this scene. They just sat there, side by side, while over and over again through God knows how many takes Robert Duvall and Michael O’Keefe played out this scene as stand-ins for Don and Pat’s former selves, determined to get it just right. Reading this scene reminded me of Eisenhower’s order that all captured Nazi officers had to be taken on tours of the death camps, made to look at the rat-infested barracks, the gas chambers, the crematoria, the piles of discarded clothes and wedding rings and teeth with gold fillings. Eisenhower’s purpose in ordering these tours was both punitive and purgative – punitive for the obvious reasons, and purgative because Eisenhower knew that somehow Germany was going to have to go on, and as a nation it needed to stare at its sins, because before a person or nation can disown a shameful past, he has to own it. The result is the same in Don Conroy’s case, except that no one forced him to go watch the scene being filmed. He chose to go, and to go on that day of filming. He was a brave guy, Don Conroy. Pat Conroy makes many references to his father’s bravery in his career as a fighter pilot, but I’m not sure that he ever makes the case that it probably took more courage for Don Conroy to spend a day on that film set than it ever took for him to fly jets into combat. He wasn’t the emotional philistine that he had been as a young man. He grew up, and nobody forced him to. There is something so admirable about that.
Holy Christ. Can I please go back in time to the beginning of my senior year in college and write my undergrad thesis on The Death of Santini? Screw that horrible novella that I wrote instead. I’m older now; I know better. Where’s that damn DeLorean when you need it?
So the above is why The Death of Santini is brilliant. I was tempted at first to say that Pat Conroy is lucky in some ways because his life has really had a shape: beginning, middle, and, maybe, in the deaths of first his mother and then his father, perhaps an end? (In this model, his present-day life with his third wife, about which you can read lots of stories in Conroy’s cookbook, is more like an epilogue or coda: his children are raised, his parents are dead, his books are written and filmed, and he knows about a million and a half ways to cook shrimp.) But then I decided that this is a silly theory. Luck has nothing to do with the shape of Pat Conroy’s life. Pat Conroy gave his life the shape it has, by writing his books the way he did, by always pushing beyond what was easy and safe, by opening the doors for a lot of resolution within his family. I don’t think he and his siblings have resolved all of their resentments and conflicts – families never do – but I do think that by writing his books Pat Conroy has given his family a great gift. The Death of Santini is, in a way, a self-congratulatory memoir. Self-congratulatory memoirs are not often my cup of tea, but I think Pat Conroy deserves every accolade he gives himself in this book. He is not a great novelist by any means, but I can’t think of many other fiction writers whose books have done so much to strengthen and shape the real lives of their authors. And this is another thing I would write in my undergrad thesis if anyone ever gets around to inventing time travel.
So I’ve praised this book quite a lot in this review, but we wouldn’t be Postcards from Purgatory if we didn’t mock it at least a little bit, right? Well, here goes. This review is on the long side, so I’m going to pack all of my ridicule into one paragraph. Ready? Go!
What can one say about a memoir that includes the statement, “I consider that night among the drag queens as one of the finest nights my grandmother and I spent in our rich and unusual life together”? Or one that contains references to someone named “Uncle Cicero”? And then there’s Pat’s suicidal nine-year-old stepdaughter who likes to say things like “I would rather bite the heads off snakes than love you, Pat” – and the TWO different scenes in which Pat bathes his adult relatives. Finally there’s the scene in which Pat Conroy accompanies President Bill Clinton to Ireland to broker peace between the British and the IRA, and Conroy ends up peeing in a urinal next to the Sinn Fein’s leader Gerry Adams and takes the opportunity to nudge Adams in the direction of peace: “Hey, Gerry? Can you guys quit this bullshit? No guns and bombs. Can you help bring this about?”
That was kind of a piss-poor mockery paragraph, and I’m sorry. Next PAT CONROY MONTH! I’ll go to town on The Prince of Tides, I promise. I just can’t get too critical about this book, which is as seductive as Conroy’s best books have always been. And finally, I am happy to inform you that Pat Conroy shares our vision of Purgatory as a place for uninterrupted reading, describing himself reading some books that were left behind in an isolated rental house his family camped out in the summer after Pat graduated from college: “I spent the rest of purgatory in the hands of John Fowles and the many pleasures of Daniel Martin…” See? Pat Conroy gets us. I always knew he would get us.