Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Birthday: the first without Himself here to celebrate


Henry Bemis Books ran this appreciation last year, for what turned out to be the author's last birthday. We repeat it today in memory of a larger-than-life individual.

Donald Patrick Conroy (1945-  )

Easily one of the most autobiographical Southern novelists since Thomas Wolfe, Pat Conroy’s life is old news to readers. The first of seven children born to a Marine colonel and his long-suffering wife, Conroy lived 23 different places by the time he was eighteen, and got his back on the Colonel in his first novel, The Great Santini (1976).

The novel, which put Conroy’s dad in an unforgiving light, rubbed salt in the wound by becoming a bestseller and then a popular, Oscar-nominated movie. Member of his family picketed his book signing, and engaged in publicity campaigns to urge the public not to buy the book. Most remarkable was his father’s reaction; the older man embarked on a program of self-transformation into an avuncular fellow who couldn’t possibly have been The Great Santini. The project effected a reconciliation between father and son, though Conroy’s habit of working out unresolved family issues in his books has kept his family on tenterhooks for forty years (on her deathbed, Conroy’s mother plumped for Meryl Streep to play her in The Great Santini; Blythe Danner got the part). The State newspaper reported, of a coming 70th birthday literary festival in Conroy’s honor,

His anxiety also stems from a natural worry over who in his family may attend, who may become offended by some perceived slight or something said. It’s a concern that’s not unfounded.

“The one common thing we share is there is always someone not talking to someone in the family,” he said.
Conroy attended The Citadel, which became grist for his second novel, The Lords of Discipline (1980). The book led to a twenty-year chill between alumnus and alma mater, broken when the school gave Conroy an honorary degree in 2000 and made him their commencement speaker in 2001. Conroy responded in kind with a generally affectionate memoir of his 1966-67 Citadel basketball season in 2002’s My Losing Season.
After graduation Conroy taught school, notably on a South Carolina coastal island, where he worked out more personal issues and got fired after a year for insubordination. He turned that experience into the novel/memoir, The Water Is Wide (1972), which has been made into two films.
In 1986 Conroy published The Prince of Tides, a novel about a family’s dark secrets; another best-seller, it was made into an Oscar-nominated film in which Barbra Streisand played a psychiatrist whose back story was the plot of the book. Subsequent Conroy books have alternated between books about himself and his excellent life with his famous friends, and more self-dissection (Beach Music, South of Broad). A 2013 memoir, The Death of Santini, looked back on life in the Conroy family’s emotional Cuisinart. In The New York Times, reviewer Frank Bruni wrote:
To dispel any lingering doubt, Conroy announces at the outset that the fictions he has spun over his long, celebrated literary career aren’t really fictions. They’re diamonds hauled up to earth and into the light of day from the dark and bottomless mine of his Southern clan: the tyrannical patriarch, the wounded matriarch, their seven self-destructive sons and daughters. We’ve met their alter egos and avatars, those of us who’ve supped contentedly on Conroy’s big-flavored prose through the years. In “The Death of Santini,” he more or less acknowledges that we’ll simply be reintroduced to them by their real names.
This admission turns out to be less a questionable sales pitch than a crucial signal, an indication of where the book is headed and what its principal distinction in the crowded genre of family exorcisms will be. Both on purpose and incidentally, “The Death of Santini” explores what it’s like to write about loved ones who aren’t shy about their reactions and what it’s like for them to be written about. Conroy’s subtitle, “The Story of a Father and His Son,” is misleading, and not just because Donald Conroy disappears from these pages for long stretches, making room for the rest of the tortured clan. It’s misleading because “The Death of Santini” is more the story of a son who turns the people closest to him into literary conceits, seeing them in terms of the vivid, florid characters they can become and have become, to their outrage and mortification, their thrill and aggrandizement.
Life as a decades-long conversational minefield is nothing new, of course, to many who have grown up in Southern families. Every sentence spoken is parsed, in real time, for its potential to confer offense upon the hearer; equal measures of resentment and joy signal the hearer’s coming counterattack. Old scores are carried forward and cross-referenced in mental Excel spreadsheets. A gay son must be banished; a lesbian daughter can be explained away by the Southern tradition of unmarried women sharing a home, and expenses, because the right man never came along to care for them. Divorces never occur in good families; spouses simply disappear, never to be spoken of again, and are eventually replaced, like Darrin Stephens on Betwitched.
Married three times, Conroy at 70 is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, embracing his past, his fame, and a newfound diet and exercise regimen after decades of being a walking heart attack- almost always being photographed leaning against something to prop himself up.
Asked whether he looks back on his past as a life well lived, or something to have survived, Conroy said without hesitation, “It’s both of those things.”
“And I’m especially trying to figure that out now.”
Take cover, Conroys! Incoming book warning! Incoming book warning!
Related sites:
Pat Conroy’s Facebook Page

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.