“Stand by for a fighter pilot!” If you read Pat Conroy’s 1976 novel The Great Santini, or saw the movie starring Robert Duvall, you will remember how the children of Marine Corps pilot Bull Meecham would line up like small soldiers to welcome their father home. What you might not know is that scene repeated in real life at military bases across the South for the seven kids of Donald Conroy and his wife Peg — as did the physical and verbal abuse vividly recounted in book and film.
“The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn’t sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates,” writes eldest son Pat near the beginning of his heartfelt new memoir, The Last of Santini (Nan Talese/Doubleday, digital galley). “I’ve got to try and make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain one final time.”
If this strikes you as so much hyperbole, you probably haven’t read much or any of Conroy’s fiction. But fans — and I count myself as one — are familiar with his extravagant prose style and the autobiographical nature of his novels. Conroy has long spun his dysfunctional family ties into entertaining stories. His flawed protagonists — The Prince of Tides’ Tom Wingo, Beach Music’s Jack McCall, South of Broad’s Leo King — are all haunted by their pasts and troubled parents, siblings, spouses. Life is a mix of pain and dread, leavened by humor and a measure of forgiveness. No wonder that some of Conroy’s own relatives have taken umbrage seeing versions of themselves in print. Don Conroy was initially outraged by The Great Santini, but he eventually enjoyed the fame and would show up to sign copies with his son.
Although Conroy writes affectionately of his much-married maternal grandmother and movingly of his mother, a faux Southern belle who introduced him to books and the reading life, he never strays far from stories about his formidable father. As the eldest child, Pat was a favorite punching bag, and he acknowledges he hated his father for years. Writing was a way of exorcising the demons. Still, as both men grew older, a tentative truce was declared, and Don Conroy, if never a good father, proved a fond grandparent and uncle.
But not all of Conroy’s stories end happily or peacefully. His younger brother Tom killed himself while a young man, leaving his siblings to grieve and wonder at what might have been. And his sister, the poet Carol Conroy, is still estranged from Pat, disagreeing with his memories of their shared childhood.
When Conroy’s memoir My Reading Life was published two years ago, I suggested we all give thanks to Peg Conroy for giving her son the gift of books and love of words. That book was his tribute to her, and he gave her and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind credit for turning him into a Southern novelist. The Death of Santini is a tribute not so much to Don Conroy as a testament to his influence. He, too, helped make Pat Conroy the writer he is. Stand by for a storyteller.