Friday, March 11, 2016

A writer remembers Pat Conroy, whose home state never cheated him of raw material.

Pat Conroy always managed to put South Carolina’s weirder qualities into gloriously humorous and scientific perspective. This is a rare art as it requires a brand of honesty most people run from before they have to think too hard about it. This honesty requires ownership of both the good and bad aspects of history, requires a person to not take their present-day role in that history so seriously that it becomes polished over with verbal lacquer—most importantly, perhaps, this honesty requires a person to not give a damn what people might say when you sit that history out for all to see. It’s a brand of honesty that holds the nuance of individuality in high regard—another quality that has become particularly undervalued these days.

I was introduced to Conroy’s work when I was 12, and to the man himself when I was 34. Our mutual friend, Charleston artist Jonathan Green, had invited me to accompany him to a cocktail party Pat and his wife, Cassandra King, were hosting after the South Carolina Book Festival. I was late, as usual, and so we arrived to find a hotel suite packed and overheated with writers taking some relief from having spent the weekend on display. When we were introduced, Pat and I could barely hear each other over the tightly contained din. Still, I found our chat about the way people choose to see each other almost as formative to my interest in nuance as reading his memoir was a couple of decades before. Pat was just as charming and opinionated as expected. His attention to the fine distinctions which give depth to vignettes that would otherwise seem simple and monochromatic was what made the grand Southern-ness of his stories break through to an audience beyond the South.

“When I write books, I never worry about going too far. South Carolina is hard to top,” Conroy told the audience at his February 2014 visit to Columbia, S.C. to speak at the city’s One Book, One Columbia event. He was right. This isn’t the storytelling capital of the United States, it’s the story-creating capital. Even in the most staid, complacently tight-lipped parts of the Palmetto State, one can become addicted to the stories that finally slip from people’s lips while sitting in the weighty dark of a cocktail-drenched summer evening...

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