Pat Conroy was the son of a Chicago-born career military pilot and a Southern belle, who fancied herself the Second Coming of Scarlet O’Hara. Though Conroy was born in Atlanta in 1945, Georgia was not in his providence. His true artistic destiny resided in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the setting for all of his books. Before he arrived there, the peripatetic Conroys had moved 22 separate times. Though he is highly regarded in the metropolis of Charleston, it is a small but charming city, Beaufort quickly became, through no fault of its own, he would write, the city he latched on like a barnacle…
Conroy was the oldest of seven children. His opening line in The Prince of Tides is My wound is geography. It is was my anchorage, my port of call. I think geography provides the theme, flavor and local color for all his writing. But his dysfunctional family and its inability to coalesce into a happy unit plagued him the rest of his life. His chaotic family life became the heartrending inspiration for most of his remaining novels. As he often said his parents gave birth to seven psychotics.
Conroy credits his mother as having introduced him to the beauties of the English language and the written word. An autodidact, she exposed her son to a rich variety of books, and more importantly, she instilled in him the pure love of reading at an early age. Conroy devoured books, like his younger siblings did their Halloween candies. He drew his inspiration, not only from his geography, but also from his high school English teacher, Gene Norris, who introduced him to the world of literature. As he wrote years ago reading has changed my life utterly. Because I lived and read, I wanted to write stories…I had stories flying out of me from everywhere.
Married with children, Conroy moved his family to Atlanta, where he wrote his break-through novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. It later became a film starring Robert Duvall. Santini explored the conflicts of the author’s childhood, particularly his ambivalent love for his violent and abusive father. The publication of a book that so painfully exposed his family’s darkest secrets led Conroy into a period of tremendous personal conflict. This crisis resulted not only in his divorce, but the divorce of his parents. His mother presented a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as “evidence” in divorce proceedings against his father. (I sometimes speculate if his title was not somehow a play on the phrase The Great Satan.)
At the insistence of his father, who wanted him to follow in his military footsteps, Conroy went against his grain and attended the Citadel in Charleston, a school noted for its strict military code and its Southern way of thinking on race and women. The Citadel became the subject of his next novel, The Lords of Discipline, published in 1980. The novel exposed the school’s harsh military discipline and racism. He often said that the best line he ever wrote belongs to Lords. Its opening reads: I wear the ring! Rings to me signify commitment, honor and loyalty.
Given its racial policies in the sixties, Conroy has had a bittersweet relationship with his Alma Mater. Bonded to his mates but hostile to its administration, it took 30 years for Conroy to overcome the ban that the University had placed on him, as he had become persona non-gratis. His Alma Mater’s ostracism was the price he paid for writing Lords. Lords had punished similarly as Santini had done to his family.
Unlike virtually all his gung ho class, Conroy eschewed service in Vietnam. Instead he taught English in Beaufort, where he met and married a young mother of two children who had been widowed during the Vietnam War. Later he accepted a position teaching underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island off the South Carolina shore. This was a year that proved he could not amend his philosophy of education to meet the standards of the local bureaucratic pedagogy. After a year, he was fired for his unconventional teaching practices – such as his refusal to allow corporal punishment of his students – and for his personal differences with the school’s administration.
Conroy evened the score by exposing the racism and appalling conditions his students endured with the publication of a memoir, The Water is Wide, published in 1972. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into the feature film Conrack.
Conroy remarried and moved from Atlanta to Rome, where he began The Prince of Tides, published in 1986. Prince became the book that solidified has position as one of the great writers, not just of the South, but also in all American literature. It immediately recognized Conroy as a master storyteller and writer who wrote poetry that melded into his prose with his prose style. This novel has become one of the most beloved novels of modern time. The Prince of Tides was later made into a highly successful feature film, directed by and starring Barbra Streisand, as well as actor Nick Nolte, whose performance won him an Oscar nomination. I believe that for its lyrical images alone, Prince is arguably one of the best books of the 20th century.
Beach Music (1995) was the story of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife’s suicidal leap off a bridge in South Carolina. While he was on tour for Beach Music, members of his Citadel basketball team began appearing, one by one, at his book signings around the country. Conroy realized that his team members had come back into his life just when he needed them most. He began reconstructing his senior year, his last year as an athlete, and the 21 basketball games that changed his life. The result of these recollections, along with his insights into his early aspirations as a writer, became My Losing Season.
Conroy’s fifth novel, South of Broad is a proverbial love letter to the city of Charleston. It also presents a Conroy first—a totally lovable father, Leo Bloom King, the story’s protagonist. Conroy loved Charleston. He was akin to one of the South’s most vibrant cities’ elder statesman. When my wife and I visited there the last summer of her life, his picture had a prominent place in the hotel lobby where we stayed.
He followed the novel with The Pat Conroy Cookbook. In My Reading Life, (2010) Conroy celebrated the art of reading and the books that most influenced him. After a trip to Cape Cod in 2014, in the airport I discovered a hardcopy of The Death of Santini, his non-fiction narration of his parents after their divorce. I had to buy it, even though it made my carry-on shoulder bag turn me into the second coming of Notre Dame’s fabled hunchback.
After several years of suffering the animus of his father, through the grace of God—this is the only explanation—Conroy and his parental nemesis came to a viable understanding. His father finally started to respect, enjoy and maybe even love being Pat’s father. Of course Don Conroy’s vanity contributed sizably because the old man had himself become a celebrity with his own near iconic image that will live for generations in literary ranks. He was after all the real Great Santini, a role he was destined to play!
Surprisingly, Pat Conroy hates to speak in public. He confesses that one of the first surprises he had, as a writer, was that he was expected to give talks and presentations whenever a new book came out. He hates that exercise in personal exposure because he was not a speaker, he was foremost in his life, a writer. Writers write because they don’t want to speak. Personally I part company with him on this. Reading and writing make me a more interesting storyteller and writer.
Conroy also confesses that the great central flaw in his character is that he has found a perfect comfort zone in all forms of chaos. I’ve never shown a similar ease when I discover any intrusion of joy, or God forbid, happiness inviting me to a party at their house. In his lifetime, he was resolute in the face of terrible abuse, the suicide of his brother Tim, family, divorce courts, plebe systems, his parents’ deaths, betrayal by people he loved, breakdown, and personal humiliation. This was all a veritable trail of tears and suffering. It seemed like the natural state of his life, though hidden among the thorns, provided him with enough time and material to write the books he once dreamed as a boy of writing.
His Catholic faith and his broken marriages also added to his kettle of witches brew. His suffering is more than a hint of Christ’s long walk to Calvary. I sense that Conroy rode on HIS crazy train more than a few times. Conroy was truly a wounded child of God and his writing proved that on almost every page. He died at the age of 70 on March 4, 2016 in the Church’s Year of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis the preceding November. Something tells me Pat and Pope Francis would have enjoyed each other’s company. The one so in need of forgiveness and personal redemption and the other, a kind, forgiving and merciful man.
As an aspiring old writer, in reading all his books, except the Cookbook, I have not only felt his pain but also danced to the sweet music of his verbal rhythms. I sense in a special way, that he and I were kindred spirits of the written word.