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Posts Tagged ‘My Reading Life’

santini“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.

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Let us all give thanks to Peg Conroy. The mother of Southern writer Pat Conroy gave him the gift of reading as a child, a love for books and words and writing.

He pays tribute to her in the first chapter —  and really throughout — his new memoir, My Reading Life, recalling how she introduced him to Gone With the Wind when he was five and living in Atlanta, and took him and his siblings to the downtown Orlando library the year he was 10 and his military pilot father (“The Great Santini’’) was overseas. The Conroys lived in Orlando near their Harper family relatives.

  “To my mother,’’ he writes, “a library was a palace of desire masquerading in a wilderness of books.’’ He credits her and Margaret Mitchell’s epic for his becoming a Southern novelist.

 Readers of Conroy’s novels, including The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, are already familiar with their autobiographical underpinnings and Conroy’s word-drunk prose.  He mines much of the same territory here, but specifically relates how the books he read, and the teachers and mentors who recommended them, shaped his life as a writer.  The resulting stories are eloquent and entertaining, at times humorous, always heartfelt.

   “I take it as an article of faith that the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever,’’ he proclaims, and goes on to expound on Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby, the works of Thomas Wolfe and James Dickey, the poetry he reads daily. He writes to explain his own life; he reads to lose himself in the lives of others. “I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading.’’

  People often talk about “gift books’’ for the holidays, thinking of those handsome tomes that look so lovely on the coffee-table. Well and good, but Conroy’s small book, with its celebratory stories of books and book people, reminds us that reading is the real gift. 

Open Book: I received an advance readers copy of Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life (Nan Talese/Doubleday) as part of a web promotion.  If you ever get a chance to hear Conroy spin his stories in person, count yourself lucky.  Talking to Pat about books and writing, and listening to him speak at various literary events over the years, are among the highlights of my journalism career.

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