What other writer in American literature has gotten more mileage from his own tragic family than Pat Conroy? The author’s army-brat upbringing under a tyrannical Marine Corps father was filled with enough turbulence, pain and insanity to inspire 40 years of literature. None of his books aired the family’s dirty laundry as famously as his 1976 novel, The Great Santini. It’s the story of a Southern family and its brash patriarch, Bull Meecham, a fighter pilot with a healthy ego and an iron fist. In Conroy’s new memoir, The Death of Santini, Bull Meacham is a sweetheart compared to the man who inspired the characters—Pat’s own father, Don Conroy.
“I remember hating him even when I was in diapers,” Pat writes, taking us straight into the lion’s den with stories of the monster’s temper and cunning. Like all great memoirists, Pat has an incredible memory, recalling every harsh word, every beating from childhood, and he conveys these horrors without overtaxing the reader. We get just enough of Don Conroy the bully before Pat shows us how the Santini legend was made.
Don, self-dubbed “the Great Santini” after a flying trapeze artist, was too intense even for fiction. After reading an early draft of The Great Santini, Conroy’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, Anne Barrett, recommended softening Bull to make him more sympathetic for readers. The experience of writing it was so traumatic that Pat spent six months afterwards “bed bug crazy” and sought help from a therapist ahead of the book’s release. “I could not bear to think that I wrote a five-hundred page novel just because I needed to love my father.”
The day the book arrived, his father pronounced, “This may be the best day of my life.” Then he took it home to read and called back two hours later. “Why do you hate me, son?” he asked, declaring it “the shittiest book I’ve ever read.”
Pat fared no better with the rest of the family. His uncle called him “a perverted ingrate,” and his grandfather told him if he wanted to learn to write, he should read James Fenimore Cooper. Uncles and aunts and friends of the family came out of the woodwork to berate him and his false portrait of a saintly tender man. “It occurred to me that there was some uncanny genius at work in my father’s perfection of child and spousal abuse,” Conroy writes. “He did it in the dark, like a roach crossing the kitchen floor at night.”
To Pat, the most heartbreaking critique came from his chief ally, his mother, who branded him a traitor. “Here’s why you really stink as a writer, Pat. You gave that book to him. Let me tell you a secret, son—I ruled that house and everything that went on in it.”
Of course, the book went on to achieve great success. Pat brought his dad to writing conferences and book signings where fans genuflected before his tough-guy charisma. When it was announced that a film of the book would be shot in their hometown of Beaufort, S.C., starring Robert Duvall in the title role, Santini declared, “It’s a shame John Wayne is dead. Only he could’ve brought my virility and toughness to the screen.”
The rest of the book chronicles ever more ugly aspects of family life—the sickness and death, the fights and resentments, the fall-out and tortured legacies. “I don’t believe in happy families,” he writes. “A family is too frail a vessel to contain the risks of all the warring impulses expressed when such a group meets on common ground.”
Pat’s literary side came from his mother, Peg, who grew up among impoverished snake-handling church folk in Alabama. When they were kids, her mom left in search of better opportunities, and they were saved from their deluded holy-rolling father and probable starvation by a family of charitable black sharecroppers. Peg, the chief target of Santini’s foul heart, endured her beatings and gave some in turn, taking her pain out on the daughters, especially the eldest, Carol Ann.
Aside from their youngest brother, Tom, who leapt to his death at the age of 34, Carol Ann seems most damaged by the Conroy’s volatility. She ran off to New York City to become a poet, returning only for deathbed visits and funerals, her every interaction fraught with bitter pretentiousness and derailed logic. “I write this with pure certainty that Carol Ann will turn these words into the bituminous fire of her anger,” Pat writes, expressing the limits of his deep compassion. “When she reads this, will I get a call that Carol Ann has leaped from a building in New York, set herself on fire, hanged herself in a closet, or cut her wrists until her body is bloodless and accusatory and something I have to live with the rest of my life?”
In some ways, it’s Santini himself who comes out least scathed from the turmoil he created. After reading the searing portrait of himself in Pat’s novel, he mellowed out and became a model grandfather. He even learned to cry, whether at his ruined marriage or at his own funeral scene in the film of The Great Santini, but especially after Tom’s suicide. “Love came in wounded and frantic ways to my dismaying family,” Pat writes, “but love it was.”
At the end of Don Conroy’s life, bed-bound and wasting away from colon cancer, Pat sat down with a tape recorder to collect war stories from the old fighter pilot. He related with nostalgic glee all the North Korean and Chinese infantryman, even 10,000 supply horses, to whom he’d laid waste from the sky. An explanation for this man, if not an excuse, comes into focus—his soldier’s sense of duty and purpose; his hard, loveless Irish upbringing in South Chicago. He came from a different time and was hammered down under forge. He possessed something wild that couldn’t be put aside each night to play family man.
And as we learn how Pat comes to see his father’s character in himself—how his own family feared his presence, the way he took charge and ordered his siblings—we sense a fuller portrait of the tragedy that played out in the Conroy home and has rippled out into the lives of his damaged offspring.
Lest this sounds like the worst sort of depressing memoir, it’s all told with Conroy’s consummate ease and good humor and tear-jerk morality. It’s a high-wire act we’ve come to take for granted from such a high-flying storyteller, who weaves together family lore, jokes and anecdotes and surprising insights from a life crowded with colorful crash-and-burn relatives. It’s a powerful testament with the lines and tension of a good novel.
In the end it feels like the death of Santini has brought Pat Conroy full-circle, that he has found closure not only in the passing of his father but in this memoir. If anything is left unresolved, then it’s Pat’s difficult relationship with his sister Carol Ann. It remains somewhat unclear why she and their late brother Tom hated Pat with such venom. He was the first-born, the second-in-command under Santini’s male-dominated order, but they seem to possess a deeper rage. Perhaps it’s something the author himself cannot fully comprehend, or maybe they simply resent Pat as the undisputed chronicler of their private misery. He is presented often as the under-appreciated savior, as many first children feel, and you get the sense that his siblings will read this and accuse him of using the book to excuse himself so that he comes off looking like a prince.
But it’s clear that Conroy paid dearly for these stories. If he’s an opportunist, then at least he’s sharing the wealth with the rest of us. Just like his old man, he’s fearless in relating this story, and he does it with style.
In one revealing scene, Pat is dining with Chicago mayor Richard Daley and his wife, Maggie. She asks him if he’d write a book about Chicago’s Irish Catholics, his father’s people. He tells her he doesn’t know enough about it, that his father never shared that side of his life. The mayor offers to introduce him to as many South Side characters as he’d like and make them tell him everything.
“But that’s research,” Pat says. “That’s not living a life.”
Jamie Kornegay runs Turnrow Book Co., an independent bookstore in the Mississippi Delta. His debut novel, Soil, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.