Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Death Of Santini by Pat Conroy


Pat Conroy is a fabulous writer, but he is hard to read.  His prose is beautiful and flows and is witty beyond all.  But the subject matter and the way he can make you feel the despair and anguish of the characters can be a gut wrenching experience for the reader.  When I get a new Conroy book it sits on my bookshelf for a few days until I have steeled myself for the adventure.

For it is always an adventure.  His writing is such that you stop and savor a sentence and wish you could write as well as he.

The Death Of Santini is the first non-fiction book I have read by Conroy.  Although all of his fiction is deeply autobiographical.  That is one of the things that makes reading his books so difficult.  You know some version of that event really happened in his family.  Even The Water Is Wide which starts with such joy and promise ends up being hard to see the racism that we would like to think doesn't exist in this country.

When he mentions an event in his family, you recall the book where he explored that.  Oh, no.  That REALLY happened.  And you understand when he writes, " I was the oldest of seven children: five of us would try to kill ourselves before the age of forty."  He calls his childhood the "wound and foundation of my work.

His father was a marine fighter pilot and "meaner than a shit-house rat, and I remember hating him even in diapers."  His mother tried to protect him on the one hand and yet kept the children in a violent home where beatings were common, frequently for no reason other than the temper of a violent, angry man.

The writing of The Great Santini was both a catharsis and brought his pain and the memories that he had suppressed raging to the forefront. And guilt for telling the world of his family secrets.   "Every time I found myself censoring the writer in me, I would write it anyway.  Finally, it became a credo for my entire writing life-if I feared putting something on paper, it was a voice screaming from the interior for me to start writing it down, to leave out nothing."

After finishing the book his father called in a rage, wanting to know why Pat hated him so much and wondering what his family would think.  Don Conroy (aka The Great Santini) kept his beating and abuse from outsiders and was thought of as a prince of a man.  Although various family members, including Don's brother, a priest, had also felt free to beat and abuse the children when they visited.  Imagine, no safe place and a priest that feels comfortable and unafraid to hit a child for any small infraction.  Growing up in that family must have shaped young Don Conroy, yet no word was ever spoken about it.

The Great Santini was made into a fabulous movie starring Blythe Danner, Robert Duvall and Michael O'Keefe.  Conroy watched the seminal scene of the movie being filmed.  It is the one where the son finally beats the father in a game of basketball.  The father refused to accept the loss and bounced the ball off his wife's face when she congratulated her son on his first victory over his overbearing father.  He then followed his son all the way into the house, hitting him in the back of his head with the basketball, over and over, trying to get him to fight back.

After the scene was filmed Conroy felt gratitude and was honored.  He had seen the creation of art in the portrayals of these fine actors.

"It was so powerful in its purity and its sheer honesty that it shook me, terrified me.  But it changed me.  That is what art always does.  It always changes you and that change stays with you for a lifetime.  The magnificent cast caught with rare perfection how quickly the Conroy family dynamic could explode, grow in anarchy and acuity, until all of us were lost in our own lunatic roles of trying to defuse the chaos that had swallowed us up in an abyss we couldn't avoid."

"The movie was superb, as perfect as anything I could imagine.  Robert Duvall, Blythe Danner, Michael O'Keefe and Lisa Jane Persky taught me what it was like to be brought home to the tabernacle where art is turned into an essential thing that a human soul can feast on."

When his mother is fighting leukemia he writes, " The leukemia was not a worthy opponent in the early days of the siege, but it would grow into unseen power as though it was a tsunami, gaining monstrous strengths undetectable to the human eye."

When speaking of the suicide of his troubled brother, Tom, "..our carelessness in how we loved him, because we discovered ourselves raised in a family where no one showed us how to love.  For us, love was a circle and a labyrinth; all its passages and cul-de-sacs found themselves guarded by monsters of our own creation.  Within us, love grew as slowly as stalactites in a cave, formed by calcite drips of water, one drop at a time."

After the funeral, Conroy spoke to all of his siblings alone, except for the "unapproachable Carol Ann".  His father was devastated over Tom's death and this was proof enough that he truly did love his children.  " He loved us, in his own way, with all his heart, but he had trouble demonstrating that love, which made him just like the rest of his children.  From that day forward, my long war against Dad came to an end.  The Conroy children wiped that slate clean.  I was coming up to my fiftieth birthday.  It embarrassed me what a mess I'd made of my life and casting stones at my own parents lacked the allure for me it once had in my fire-eating youth."

Conroy's relationship with his poet sister, Carol Ann fell apart over the years, torn asunder by the shared trauma of their childhood and their coping mechanisms.  One funny story he shared was a get together for the purpose of sending a family portrait to Don. This visit was punctuated by Carol Ann's announcement that she was a lesbian and her insistence that her girlfriend be included in the picture.

Pat was concerned his grandmother, known as Stanny, would object.  Her only comment was that Carol Ann was making a fool of herself, because she had never even been to Beirut.

"What do you mean by that, Stanny?" I said.  "Who cares if you've been to Beirut or not?"

"Pat, it only makes sense if you look at it literally.  Only people who've been to Lebanon can be real lesbians."

He hollered with laughter and finally realized she had been told growing up in Piedmont that lesbians were people from Lebanon.

"That's what they're called everywhere," Stanny said, not giving an inch.  "She needs to learn these things, needs to study a little geography."

Conroy uses humor to save himself and it is the relief from the horror of his early life.  It is also the break you need when reading about it.  It's what saves him and makes his books readable, by me at any rate.

So buy his book and read it.  But only when you feel strong enough to withstand the onslaught of emotions his writing will engender.  If nothing else, it will put the crummy moments in your own childhood into perspective.

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