The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy

Readers seem to love or hate Pat Conroy. I’m a definite lover of his writing. I first read him in the early 1980s as a high schooler in Cicero, IL after joining the Marines on the delayed entry program. The Great Santini and The Lords of Disciplineintroduced me to the military and the South, and they would later help me understand my own growing love/hate relationship with both.

Conroy is perhaps most widely known for The Prince of Tides, but when I hear the name Pat Conroy what flashes before my eyes are scenes from The Great Santini, an autobiographical novel about a young boy who survives an abusive, alcoholic father. When a friend of mine was in graduate school for social work, she borrowed the movie version of The Great Santini from me to show it as an example of a dysfunctional family system. It’s one of the few movie adaptations that I think are as good as the book.

Over the years I’d heard that Conroy’s abusive, ego-maniacal father had changed for the better as a result of reading his son’s portrayal of him in The Great Santini. I was pretty psyched when I heard he was writing a book about that transformation. The book tore the family apart, but the movie version actually helped bring the family back together.

One of the reasons Conroy wrote The Great Santini is that he thought he was telling “a story that had never been told in the history of American literature,” the story of the children of warriors. Isn’t that the truth? Can you think of a novel that deals with being the child of a warrior?

In The Death of Santini Conroy focuses not only on his father, but on his mother, some extended family, and his siblings, particularly his sister, Carol Ann, who is now a poet who living in New York City and from whom he’s estranged. He’s also estranged from one of his daughters, but doesn’t say what caused that split. There’s pain in the book, but there’s also understanding and humor. Forgiveness is a tricky, personal thing, however, and after reading everything Conroy has written I can see why some family members would want to keep their distance from the heart of this clan.

I like reading Conroy’s memoirs because I want to see how a writer lives his life, how he negotiates between HIS life, his family’s expectations and memory, and the reality of putting it down on paper. It was through writing The Great Santini that Conroy developed the credo of his writing life:

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.

Conroy is unapologetic about writing autobiographically based fiction and thumbs his nose at those who put down such writing as being not very imaginative.

He also rips on Random House and one of its famous editors: during the writing of The Prince of Tides Conroy’s editor, Jonathan Galassi, took a job at Random House and wanted Conroy to follow him. Conroy did not have a good first impression and writes just enough about the encounter to tantalize, but offers no explicit details.

When I visited the new office of Jonathan at Random House, it soon became apparent that the editors and publishers at that august publishing house had no interest in my writing career and almost none in Jonathan’s either. We were insulted in ever office to which he took me. I never felt like more of a Southern hick, toothless and feckless with holes in my shoes, than I did for those two shameful hours wandering the halls of that gutless company. Jason Epstein has no idea how close I was to breaking his bigmouthed jaw when he mortified a crestfallen Jonathan in front of me and refused to raise his eyes to meet mine, nor his hand to shake mine in friendship. He was a braying, overbearing man, not a lonesome dove among his discourteous colleagues.

This was a rare stray away from focusing on his family. This memoir is full of raw and heartbreaking details of family life, from his mother’s dirt poor childhood in Depression era Alabama to his father’s Irish Catholic family on Chicago’s south side. There’s lots of mean and and lots of crazy, but, as Conroy asks, how far do youhave to scratch before you hit crazy in your family? Mom? Dad? Aunt? Grandpa? Sister?

The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son
Pat Conroy
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, October 29, 2013
Hardcover, 352 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-53090-3
Source: gift from family member. Thanks, Laura!

Here are Conroy’s books in chronological order:

  • The Boo 1970 (my review here)
  • The Water Is Wide 1972
  • The Great Santini 1976
  • The Lords of Discipline 1980
  • The Prince of Tides 1986
  • Beach Music 1995
  • The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life 1999
  • My Losing Season 2002
  • South of Broad 2009
  • My Reading Life 2010 (my reviews here: book and audio)
  • The Death of Santini 2013
 What’s your favorite Pat Conroy book?

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