I read this one in September. Oh, September. Three months and forty degrees ago. The Great Santini was the last of the Pat Conroy’s canon as it existed in the early 1990’s that I read. I don’t know why, exactly, but that’s how it shook out. I remember not liking it as much as The Lords of Discipline, but then I didn’t like any book as much as that one for a long, long time. I remember enjoying it, that Ben plays basketball, Santini is a jerk, and that Conroy kills him at the end. But that’s basically all. Santini didn’t travel with me from apartment to apartment in college and beyond like The Lords of Discipline. It didn’t stick with me, not really. Maybe it’s because the only female character in my age group at the time I read it the first time is Mary Ann Meecham and she is profoundly annoying. Like really. I wish I had more to say about my history with The Great Santini, but I just don’t.
This was Pat Conroy’s first novel. And by novel I, of course, mean a thinly veiled memoir, focusing on his physically and mentally abusive Marine fighter pilot father, here known as Bull Meecham or The Great Santini. Santini returns from a year overseas and relocates his family (again), this time to Ravenel, South Carolina, where there is a Marine air base. We spend about a year in the life of the Meecham/Conroy family in Ravenel. We watch Bull and Ben play basketball. When Ben beats his dad in a game of one-on-one for the first time Bull chases him up the stairs to his room bouncing a basketball off the back of his head the whole way. There are lots of other things that happen. For example, Bull takes Ben to the Officer’s Club on his eighteenth birthday and gets him drunk. And then, ultimately, Bull dies in a plane crash. His family mourns him. I’m sorry that I am not doing more summary of the plot than this but honestly, I feel like I read The Great Santini three times this year: the actual book, My Losing Season, and The Death of Santini, which I’ll get to eventually. Conroy has been telling this same story for almost thirty-eight years. And I’m not tired of it, I swear. But I am tired of trying to remember what event happened in which book. So you guys should read them all, and at the end you’ll have the entire story.
I wish that this book meant more to me than it does. I wish I loved Ben Meecham as much as Will McLean. But I don’t. For me, Pat Conroy will always be the author of The Lords of Discipline, and a bunch of other books that I enjoyed to varying extents. I wish that Lillian Meecham and Peg Conroy weren’t so jumbled up in my head; same with Mary Ann Meecham and Carol Ann Conroy. I can’t sympathize with Lillian because I know Peg was far from a saintly parent. And I know Mary Ann turns into Carol Ann when she grows up and does all kinds of crazy things (more on her when I get to my post about The Death of Santini) so I can’t really sympathize with her very much, either. That and sometimes I think she goaded Santini into slapping her around. I’m not saying that she deserved the abuse heaped upon her, or the treatment she received at the hands of her mother, but sometimes I wanted to smack her myself.
I don’t want you guys to think that I didn’t enjoy this book. I did. It’s lovely. I am so glad that I read it again, and that I read it, My Losing Season, and The Death of Santini close together this year. But there is simply something about it that keeps me from holding it close to my heart. Perhaps because it’s Conroy’s first novel it lacks that depth of emotion that his others have. Perhaps it’s because it’s written in the third person. How he should have done it is with alternating first person viewpoints, swapping between Santini and Ben. And maybe Mary Ann and Lilian, too. I don’t think that was done back in the 1970’s, but I think having the immediacy of a first person narrator would help. This is the only Conroy book written in the third person, which is interesting to me—why did he give up on this narrative method, I wonder?
With this post, we can officially close 2013’s PAT CONROY MONTH!! I do still have to finish my The Death of Santini post, but that wasn’t technically part of PAT CONROY MONTH!! 2013. Why Conroy’s publishers didn’t figure out a way to make the two coincide is beyond me. And just think, only eight months to go until PAT CONROY MONTH 2014….