The more I read of Pat Conroy as an adult the more I know that his most powerful “fiction” is the stuff that is rooted in truth. This sentence is made apparent in reading My Losing Season, in which he says that “It never occurred to [him] that [he] would carry [his] childhood in a backpack to spread its coarse havoc and discord far into [his] adult life (p. 393).” The further Conroy gets from Will McLean and Ben Meecham the more cloying and ridiculous his prose seems to me. After reading My Losing Season I know that Conroy was meant to be a memoirist. His youth damaged him and made him a poet and much as it sucks for him, that’s what resonates with people: him talking about his miserable formative years. I wish he could write fiction with the passion and pathos and humor with which he writes about his own life. He would win a Nobel Prize if he could. Okay, maybe not a Nobel Prize. That’s hyperbolic. He’s no Alice Munro. But you guys get my point, right? If you don’t, you should read The Great Santini and then pick up South of Broad. Then you’ll get it.
I didn’t buy My Losing Season when it came out in 2002. I remember seeing it at Borders in Davis and getting so excited that Conroy had a new book out. This was back before I stalked my favorite writers on Amazon to know exactly when new books would be arriving, so I had no idea that a new Conroy book was expected. I remember picking it up and reading the inside jacket and realizing it was nonfiction. Blech. And it was about basketball. Double blech. I put it down and wandered off and looked at something by someone who had the decency to write fiction. Probably bad fiction. Let’s just say that the early 2000’s were something of a dark period in my literary tastes. Not entirely, but somewhat. After reading this book I very much regret not reading it when it first came out. Sometimes my reading prejudices really get in my own way, even when it’s a book written by one of my favorite writers. But maybe these things happen for a reason. If I had actually read this book in 2002, I wouldn’t have had anything new to read for our second annual PAT CONROY MONTH!!
In 2002 I was twenty-five, and looking back, still very close to the person I was in college, on the cusp of adulthood and all that, though at the time I thought I was very different than I was at twenty-one. There was so much that was still ahead of me, life-changing stuff, like vet school and losing pets and getting married and so many other things that I can’t even think of on this rainy November night. I think I’m glad I read it as a person a little removed from my early twenties and college. Because I can appreciate more all that Conroy goes into about the birth of the person he was to become and how that person began to exist on the basketball courts of his senior year at The Citadel. I would have found all that imagery as lovely then as I do now, but at twenty-five I wouldn’t have been able to look back on myself at that age and reflect on who I was and how my experiences shaped who I am. I have one formative moment I want to share. Most of my vet school interview is a blur now, but one question I remember being asked is this one: “What will you say to other veterinarians when they ask you about being a lab animal veterinarian or if people give you a hard time because you work with research animals?” [Back then I wanted to go into lab animal medicine. This didn’t end up being what I did, but mostly because the thought of spending at least five more years in school doing a residency and Ph.D. was odious to me by the end of vet school.] I said something like, “I would say that animal research is going to happen no matter what people feel about it, and those research animals deserve to be as well-cared-for as humanly possible. They are giving their lives to forward research they can’t possibly understand. They deserve everything we can give them.” For the people who read this blog who know me now, but didn’t know me then, saying something like this is very expected of me. I have strong feelings about a lot of things, and I express those feelings. Loudly, at times. Possibly this is to my detriment. Back in 2002, I was a lot less confident and much more reluctant to share my opinions. But I knew I had to make a stand. I had to state my case and defend it. They always said that in your vet school interview you needed to not back down. Don’t give an inch or the interviewers will eat you alive. So I was strong and firm and I got into vet school. I remember my freshman year I was chatting with one of the people on my interview committee at a TG (Friday afternoon barbeque), and he referenced my interview. He said that he knew there was something in me that was not to be messed with. Or something. Basically he saw strength in me that I didn’t know was there until that moment. And I don’t think I could have appreciated Pat’s experiences until I’d had a similar epiphany in my own life.
My Losing Season details Pat Conroy’s final year as an athlete—as point guard for The Citadel Bulldogs in the 1966-67 season. He also goes into a fair amount of detail about his prior history with basketball, and how it allowed him to find a place at all the schools he attended. I believe the stats on his moves were twenty-three in eighteen years or something of the sort. It was definitely more than one move a year. As someone who has lived far from a nomadic existence, I can barely fathom spending so much of my formative years on the move. As I see it, people can respond to that much mobility by either shutting themselves up inside themselves or by throwing themselves out there and bonding to everyone they meet very quickly. Pat seemed to do the first for a few months, and then get over it and decide each school he goes to is his forever home and family. I assume this has something to do with his wretched home life. He says somewhere in the book that his actual dad was much, much worse than his character in The Great Santini. I read that one after My Losing Season, and that ended up being very true. Bull Meecham is practically a teddy bear compared to the version of Santini that’s in My Losing Season. I was very surprised about that.
There is a part of this book that Bethany told me about a few months before I read it, and I confess I found a copy of My Losing Season at Barnes and Noble and read this section long before I read the entire book. I regret that I did that because though it is lovely I feel like reading it outside the context of the book took away some of its power. In this part I’m speaking of, Conroy has a conversation with the fictional version of himself from The Lords of Discipline, Will McLean. I wish it were longer than two pages. In these two pages Conroy gets to the crux of his entire writing career: he says to Will, “’I’m trying to find out who I was back then…. I was something like you, Will. But not completely. I really like you, Will McLean. I liked you best of all (p. 293).’” I liked Will the best of all, too.
At the beginning of the Epilogue of My Losing Season, Pat says that in this book he forced himself to “consider the perilous and shifting nature of memory itself (p. 393).” I think about this a lot. It dismays me that memory is not the permanent thing I thought it was when I was a teenager. I thought I’d remember everything that ever happened to me forever. But as time goes by, things get fuzzy and vague and unreliable. I’m learning to accept this as part and parcel of living a full life, but I still don’t really like it. I want my entire life, every mundane detail, to be able to be accessed. Obviously, that is an impossible dream, at least with current technology. I wish I could come up with some poetic way to describe how I’ve made peace with the true nature of memory, but I can’t, because I haven’t. What I’ve done is decided to not think about it, or to think about it as little as possible. I am grateful for some of the painful memories of adolescence becoming less sharp as time goes by, less like a knife digging into me. Why do we feel things so much more keenly when we are young? Hormones? Sure, that sounds good. But it would be nice to see myself more clearly in my vet school interview, to see my adult self begin to emerge out of the shell of my childhood. These days we have cell phone cameras to capture every single minute of our lives—hardly a day goes by that I don’t take a picture of something. It’s my attempt to remember, or to create things with which to jog my memory at some future point when I can’t remember what exactly I was doing on December 27th, 2013. I’ll know I was sitting on my couch, wearing a flannel shirt, with day-old make up on my face. Maybe the exact words I said at my vet school interview aren’t important ultimately, just like the details of all of Pat Conroy’s basketball games at The Citadel aren’t important. Maybe the minutiae of our lives aren’t important, maybe it’s the overarching feelings that are vital and that’s why that is what remains as the years extend behind us.