I admit I went into the PfP archives tonight to see what Bethany wrote when she reviewed The Prince of Tides on the blog. Except she never has. I was so surprised. I feel immense pressure to do justice to this book’s first appearance in PAT CONROY MONTH!!! now, so much so that I got overwhelmed last night when I started writing an update and gave up and went to bed. Ooops. But I’m back and I’m ready to think articulately.
So, since this is the first time arguably Pat Conroy’s most famous book has appeared on our blog, I feel like some plot summary is in order. This time, the thinly veiled Conroy clan are called the Wingos of Colleton, South Carolina. Pa Conroy is not a career Marine, but rather a fighter pilot in WWII named Henry Wingo who comes home and returns to being a shrimper and all-around jackass (of the standard Conroyvian variety). Ma Conroy, here called Lila, is a southern belle with social climbing aspirations who pits her children against each other and who is essentially the evil twin of Lillian Meecham in The Great Santini, or possibly the same person being described by an adult child rather than an actual child. The narrator is Tom Wingo (a.k.a. Pat Conroy, a.k.a. Ben Meecham, a.k.a. Will McLean), and he has two siblings: a twin sister, Savannah, and an older brother, Luke. Savannah reminds me of Mary Ann Meecham, as well as Pat’s own sister, Carol Ann Conroy. Luke is not a character we have met before—the Pat Conroy character is usually the oldest sibling, so this was different. We have two timelines going: present day, which is approximately 1981, wherein Tom has lost his job as a high school English teacher and football coach for reasons as of yet undisclosed, and wherein feminist poet Savannah has been hospitalized in New York City for yet another suicide attempt; and the story of the Wingo family’s past, starting from when Tom and Savannah are born, and generally told in a linear fashion, though there is a fair amount of jumping around. The conceit is that Tom has been sent for by Savannah’s psychiatrist to help unravel Savannah’s most recent breakdown, and the “flashbacks” are Tom telling the psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein, the story of their family. I’m about one-third of the way through the book, and I’ve mentioned that it has seemed much darker to me than The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline. Those books seem to end with hopefulness that things will get better now that the narrator/protagonist is an adult. In The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo is an adult and his life is just as much a mess as it was when he was a kid getting the crap beaten out of him by his father, and being organized by his mother. Tom Wingo is lost, and it’s awful to read. I don’t mean the book is awful. The book is quite good. But it’s depressing, at least the first third has been. I think that there is a change of attitude on the horizon, thanks to Susan Lowenstein, but I won’t get into that yet, since I haven’t read that far yet this time around, but if you take a look at the movie cover above, I think the way Dr. Lowenstein repairs Tom Wingo is obvious.
The funniest part of this novel so far has been an incident in which Luke, Tom, and Savannah accompany their grandmother, Tolitha Wingo, to buy a coffin. She was told by a fortune teller somewhere in the world (Tolitha went world-travelling for a couple of years) that she would die when she is sixty, so she decides to buy a coffin, a cheap one. Mr. Winthrop Ogletree, the town undertaker, spends some time trying to upsell Tolitha, but she stays firm on only wanting a pine box. Then she pulls out the camera and makes the kids take pictures of her playing dead in a coffin, and as she is doing this, Mrs. Blankenship wanders in. This is apparently a woman who Tolitha is not fond of, because she continues to lay in the coffin, pretending to be dead, lets Mrs. Blankenship say terrible things about her to her own grandchildren, then sits up in the coffin, grabs a stick of gum out of Mrs. Blankenship’s hand, puts it in her mouth, and lays back down in the coffin, never opening her eyes or saying a word. It was truly one of the funniest stories I’ve read in a long time. I know that Pat Conroy had an eccentric grandmother who was similar to Tolitha Wingo in many ways, but I’m not sure if this story is rooted in fact or not. I don’t know that it matters, really, but part of the fun of reading Pat Conroy for me these days is figuring out what actually happened and what he made up.
I think that I’m going to close for tonight. I hope that work isn’t ridiculous the next few days so I have some good updates for Tuesday and Thursday. I’m going to close with a quotation from early on in The Prince of Tides, when Tom and Luke visit Savannah in New York City for her first poetry reading after she publishes her first book of poems. The visit is lovely, especially since I know how awful things are going to get for the Wingo kids shortly after this visit, even though they are so together and happy in 1972, though Savannah is having problems with depression already, and before the following comment has just admitted to her brothers that she has been seeing a psychiatrist since moving to New York. Luke says to Savannah and Tom, “‘How do you know mental illness is not some kind of diarrhea of the brain, big man? Something goes haywire and the body has a thousand different ways of letting you know something’s wrong. The body’s got integrity and you’ve got to listen to it (45).’” I really need to remember this: mental illness is brain diarrhea.