This is why they created novels. Because for writers tortured by wretched familial memories, fiction assuages the unbearable stuff. Because in a memoir, bitter recollections spill out like viscera from an open wound.
“I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years,” Pat Conroy writes in his prologue to The Death of Santini. But not like this. Not in a form that denies a reader the comfort of knowing — or at least hoping — that the violent father, the narcissistic mother, the unhinged sister, the anger and resentment and despair of the brothers were necessary embellishments of a novelist.
They weren’t. We see that now. The troubled characters Conroy created in such renowned novels as The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides were damn near softies compared to the actual Conroys of his memoir.
Conroy recalls an early draft of his first novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. “As I began to write, my rage at Dad was a disfiguring thing even to me. My portrait of my father was so venomous and unforgiving that I had to pull back from that outraged narrative voice and eventually decide to put the book into third person. But even then, the words flowed like molten steel instead of language.”
Finally, an editor convinced him that the father in his novel needed a make-over. “No reader could expect to believe that such an unsavory man could exist without a single virtue to recommend him. To make him credible, I had to include scenes that displayed a softener and kinder man.”
“To make my father human,” Conroy admits, “I had to lie.”
This comes as startling news to readers who remember the abuse and the unrepentant meanness of Marine fighter pilot Bull Meecham in The Great Santini. Conroy’s The Death of Santini describes Colonel Don Conroy as a father without the softer, kinder touches the novelist granted to Bull Meecham. “From the start he was a menacing, hovering presence, and I never felt safe for one moment that my father loomed over me.” When the real father went off to war, the real son prayed that Don Conroy would perish in the conflict. The novelist, indeed, made Bull Meecham a casualty of war. “No one ever loved writing his father’s funeral scene more than I did. I relished every word of it.”
But Don Conroy survived his wars. (Pat Conroy describes how the colonel watched the finale of the movie version of The Great Santini, with “tears running down his cheeks as the colonel watched the burial of his fictitious self”). By the time of his actual funeral in 1998, Don Conroy had mellowed enough that he would become the most likable character in his son’s 2013 remembrance. But the memoir recasts his estranged wife Peg, the model for a near perfect mother in the son’s novel, into a pretentious, insecure, self-centered woman, a refugee of an impoverished Alabama hill family who pretended to be a daughter of southern aristrocracy. The poet sister of Prince of Tides becomes so insufferable, so self-centered, so mad that her portrayal becomes uncomfortable reading. Her antics at a younger brother’s funeral might have been the stuff of black humor, were this a novel. But we cringe knowing this pathetic women will also be reading these same accounts.
Conroy writes with great affection of his grandmother Stanny. She's the closest thing to a heroine in Conroy's family history, though Stanny abandoned her four young children, hitchhiked from the Alabama backwoods to Atlanta and married another seven men over the course of her colorful life.
We re-live the suicide and agonizing funeral of a schizophrenic brother. The long decline and death of his mother. And Pat Conroy’s own fragile mentality. “In the decade of the nineties, I was having breakdowns at regular intervals and was suicidal much of the time.”
Finally, we read of the decline of the Great Santini himself. And through Conroy’s considerable writing skills, by the time of the funeral, the reader feels the loss of the tough old Marine, the onetime family villain, like the passing of a longtime friend.
This is not a book for someone’s first venture into Conroy’s work. Rather, it’s an almost voyeuristic snoop into the real lives of the fictional characters so dear to his fans. Without knowing the novels, without knowing something about this family’s fictional history, this heap of pain and dysfunction would be almost repressive. But for those of us who have been reading Conroy’s books over these past four decades, The Death of Santini explains much. Maybe more than we ought to know.
But I flinched at the rough treatment and occasional cheap shots that a powerful writer wreaks on family and acquaintances. The son of the Great Santini can be as brutal with his words as his father was with his fists.
Conroy’s marriages and love affairs hardly amount to a few pages. Second wife Lenore, for her 10-year investment, is dismissed as “merciless and conniving.” Explaining why he left her, he writes, “I found myself in my late forties facing a loneliness that cut like a horse’s bite.” Conroy writes that he was shocked to read in a magazine piece how his first wife Barbara assessed his failures as a parent to their three daughters. “What is suggested but left unsaid in the course of the long interviews, is that Don has proved himself a loving, more involved grandfather than the haunted, overwrought Pat has been a father.”
The kids hardly get a mention. But on page 337, in a long list of acknowledgments, Conroy adds a line hinting that the Conroy family dysfunction and estrangement did not end with the death of the Great Santini. “And to my lost daughter Susannah Conroy, the door is always open and so is my heart.”
Fred Grimm is a Miami Herald columnist.