What better name for this epoch of chat, Twitter and tweet, of Facebook and LinkedIn, of Oprah and Springer, of politicians, generals and ministers daily confessing their latest peccadilloes? Restraint is dead, privacy is murdered, and the public square is now the place where we parade our emotions and thoughts as nakedly as the emperor who wore no clothes. In this respect, our country has become a gigantic kindergarten, where show-and-tell is the order of the day.
Which brings us to Pat Conroy’s recently published memoir, The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son (ISBN 978-0-385-53090-3, $28.95).
Those familiar with Conroy’s previous works, novels like The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and Beach Music, or his non-fiction volumes like The Pat Conroy Cookbook and My Losing Season, know that Conroy, like his early literary hero Thomas Wolfe, mines his troubled childhood in everything he writes. Always behind the man, now one of America’s best-known and most beloved authors, stands the boy who suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his father, a Marine Corps pilot who drank to excess and who took out the savagery boiling inside his heart on his wife and children. The shadow of this complicated man haunts every page Conroy has ever written.
In The Death of Santini, Conroy returns once again to the man, the family, and the past that so heavily influenced him as a writer. This time, rather than conceal these people and events behind the curtain of fiction, Conroy gives us an unadorned view of his parents and siblings. He begins with a prologue that introduces readers once again to the trauma he suffered as a boy, and then reveals in subsequent chapters the slow changes worked by time and circumstance on his mother and father, and the effects of these changes on the rest of the family. He does give us thumbnail sketches of his time at The Citadel, his battles with depression, his marriages and divorces, the thrills and concomitant agony of writing and publishing his books.
Yet the focus of the book is on his family. Though much of the story about his father, Don Conroy, will be familiar to discerning readers, we do have the pleasure of watching an emotionally stunted man break down the walls that he had built around his heart and transform himself into a loving father and grandfather. In many ways, The Death of Santini is actually more a story of a resurrection, of a man nearly dead to his wife and family who comes to life again. Don Conroy remained a Marine to the end of his days — when Pat Conroy asks his father what he would do if the U.S. government ordered him to fly over New York City and drop a nuclear bomb, Col. Conroy’s answer is a stoic “Boom” — but by the time of his death he has dropped the iron mask of earlier years.
Readers will learn much more about Conroy’s mother, his siblings and his extended family. Several members of the family suffered breakdowns, including Conroy; and his youngest brother, Tom, eventually committed suicide by leaping from a 14-story building. His account of his sister Carol Ann, a poet and the rebel-heretic of the family, and her wild antics at the funerals of both her mother and her father, are both devastatingly humorous and deeply sad. (I have often loved Conroy’s prose, his lush, moving sentences, but found his plots far-fetched at times. After reading this memoir, I have considerably revised my opinion).
The Death of Santini will certainly bring laughter and tears to many readers, and a good many of these same will, I suppose, relate to Conroy’s descriptions of his family’s quarrels, madness, and ruptures. Healing — or at least a better understanding of our own families — can come from reading such a personal, intense memoir.
Yet a part of me recoiled from this book. What Conroy once concealed, however poorly, behind his fiction he now openly reveals. Is it really necessary to air the family’s secrets this way? Do we really need to know about Carol Ann’s crazy behavior at her father’s funeral? (At one point during the funeral she goes down between the pews, shoots her brother the middle finger again and again, and accompanies those gestures with words to match her finger’s meaning, causing one friend to remark: “You Conroys sure know how to put on a show.”) Do we need an account of Conroy’s failings with his brother Tom, the suicide? What sort of catharsis does the author hope for in describing the various kooks among his relatives, the sort of misfits and eccentrics found, as Conroy himself writes, in most families? (Interestingly, Conroy tells us he suffered several breakdowns during his life, but withholds the details he lavishes on the rest of the book.)
Ours is the Age of Revelation, and outrageous revelation sells books. Certainly The Death of Santini will interest Conroy’s fans, among whom I count myself, and may draw new readers to him. Still, I finished the book thinking about restraint, and those old-fashioned tight-lipped men and women who once carried their joys and sorrows, their pain and their wounds, to the grave without feeling the need to dump them out onto the rest of the world.
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son by Pat Conroy. Nan A. Talese, 2013. 352 pages.