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Posts Tagged ‘Southern writers’

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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mccorkleAs a hospice volunteer, Joanna knows the importance of moments. Her own checkered past has led her back to the small North Carolina town of Fulton, where she made peace with her daddy and now records the last thoughts and words of the dying at the Pine Haven retirement center. But she also is fully engaged with living and the living, from tattooed single mom CJ to troubled pre-teen Abby to retired third-grade teacher Sadie. The latter optimistic soul uses Polaroid snapshots, cut-out magazine scenes, color markers and glue to assemble collages of her friends in places they have only imagined. “I can make you a memory and I can make a dream come true,” she says.

Jill McCorkle does something similar in her new novel, Life After Life, spinning words and images into a story that rings so true you forget it’s fiction. I once wrote about one of her books — maybe the novel Carolina Moon, maybe the story collection Final Vinyl Days, possibly both — that her characters live so fully within the pages that you swear they also live outside them. They’re that real.

Take former lawyer Stanley Stone, who has moved to Pine Haven with his obsession for wrestling, Herb Alpert and inappropriate remarks. But he is faking dementia because he wants his grown son to have a life of his own. Rachel Silverman, another retired lawyer, may be the one to figure him out, although she has her own secret reason for leaving Massachusetts for Pine Haven — it’s next to the cemetery where the love of her  life is buried next to his wife. The cemetery is also a refuge for Abby, who is mourning her lost  dog Dollbaby and hoping that her parents — social-climbing Kendra and amateur magician Ben — split up. Kendra is carrying on an affair with a married man, while Ben, once Sadie’s favorite student and Joanna’s best childhood friend, drinks too much and perfects a disappearing chamber. “And now ladies and gentlemen, I will make this normal ordinary girl disappear.”

Joanna remembers Ben’s words over the years and once tried to make herself disappear by drowning in a hot tub — only to be rescued by a giant dog named Tammy. And it was Tammy’s owner Luke who gave Joanna back her life, encouraging her to “unpack her heart” of failed projects, toxic relationships, old grievances and wounds. Joanna is still working on that.

McCorkle has the gift of mixing humor and heartbreak so as to make you laugh one moment, cry the next. Death can be peaceful, or it can be sudden, even violent. Happy endings are not guaranteed, and surprises still await the most jaded. In the end, Life After Life is true-to-life.

Open Book: I read a digital galley and review copy of Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life (Shannon Ravenel/Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). It’s not to be confused with the new book of the same title by Kate Atkinson, which I’ll be writing about when it pubs next week. They both are good but different.

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On the way to my cousin Rachel’s wedding this past Saturday, I typed the destination — Island House, Johns Island SC — into my iPhone GPS just for kicks. It was a good thing we knew where we were going, because the phone started directing us to the Johns Island Church of Prayer, which is also off River Road but past Maybank Highway. Even though I hadn’t been on the curving two-lane in years, I knew our turn-off was to the left a ways before Maybank, marked by a giant propeller at the entrance of a boatyard. The lowcountry landscape in the late afternoon sun was both strange and achingly familiar, the way places in the heart are after a long absence. Big trees and hanging moss gave way to a wide expanse of green lawn and a field of wildflowers on the banks of the Stono River, where the wind ruffled the water and snapped the top flaps of the white wedding tent. We had arrived where we were supposed to be.

I had something of the same feeling on reading three recent Southern novels. They differ in story, setting and style, but all have the definite sense of place and people that are recognizably Southern, and thus “known.” With The Cove (HarperCollins, paperback ARC), Ron Rash returns to the backwoods of the North Carolina mountains, this time during World War I. Laurel Shelton lives with her injured war veteran brother, “waiting for her life to begin.” Then she finds love with the stranger known as Walter, a mute who plays a silver flute, but their possible future is threatened by local Army recruiter Chauncey, whose xenophobia plays into the local community’s superstitions and fears. The result is a haunting, sorrowful ballad, true mountain music.

The Southern Gothic trappings are more overt in Wiley Cash’s debut, A Land More Kind Than Home (Morrow, paperback galley), which explores love and violence, faith and redemption after a mute boy dies during a “healing” service at a local church. The three narrators — the dead boy’s younger brother Jess; sympathetic sheriff Clem Barefield; elderly church member and midwife Adelaide — have distinct voices and perspectives. But the most compelling — and repellent — character remains Pastor Carson Chambliss, a scarred ex-con who stirs his congregation to a frenzy by speaking in tongues and handling snakes.

Cash writes lyric lean, while Marly Youmans writes lyric lush in A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer University Press; digital galley). It’s a picaresque journey through the Great Depression as the aptly-named Pip Tatnall leaves a Georgia farm after the murder of his brother Otto. His thirst for knowledge of the wider world leads him to ride the rails, and Youmans details his adventures in a series of poetically rendered set pieces.

My favorite may be 12-year-old Pip’s sojourn at Roseville, a minature metropolis of junk where Pip finds a makeshift family of lovable eccentrics who encourage his dreams.  “This was a place worth staying in, he decided. Both of the old people were lunatics and might be fetched and locked away in the looney bin at Milledgeville any day now, but there was no harm in them, or Bill and Clemmie. It seemed to him that Georgia and probably the whole country had its share of the  squirrelly, and maybe this part no more than most. . .perhaps madness was essential.”

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Last summer, the good folks at SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, suggested that its members “get in bed with a blogger,”  which sounded kind of hot. (Remember when we were complaining about the heat?!) Actually, the idea was that indies partner with bloggers to reach more readers and let them know what was going on at their local bookstores.

Alas, my local indie, Urban Think, in downtown Orlando, had recently closed its doors, as had many of its counterparts, casualties of the economy, the chains, the online stores, the warehouse stores, the rise of e-books, etc. Seems like every week now, I hear of the demise of another longtime indie, many of which hosted Caroline Cousins and other Southern writers over the years: The Happy Bookseller in Columbia, S.C.,  Davis-Kidd in Nashville, Bay Street Trading Company in Beaufort, S.C.  They are sorely missed.

But I want you to know my home island indie, The Edisto Bookstore on Edisto Island, S.C., is hanging in there. In fact, things were right busy when I was in there last week making my farewells before heading home to Florida. Several tourists were looking at the books, new and used, and a local woman popped in for a birthday card and a gift, knowing that owner Karen Carter has the best collection of both. Another islander needed a nautical chart. Both rental desktops in the internet cafe were in use (wi-fi is free if you have your own laptop), and one woman (obviously from “off”) rather rudely asked Karen and I to move our conversation about new books to another part of the store. We complied, just as a couple came in to visit Emily Grace.

Emily Grace is the bookstore cat, a pretty girl who wandered up on the porch three years ago. She now has her own private quarters in the tiny back office, but she usually can be found near the front door greeting customers. She likes being petted and picked up — I’ve carried her around on my shoulder while perusing the shelves. She likes laps and laptop bags, and on cold days, she curls up on the wireless router between the two desktops. She makes the bookstore feel even more like home.

Business can be tough, Karen admits: “I had to diversify or die,” hence the cards and unusual trinkets for sale. But, after 20 plus years, she knows her community — the year-rounders, the vacationers, the part-timers (like me) — and she stocks a good assortment of books on the Lowcountry and by Lowcountry authors (Mary Alice Monroe, Karen White,  Sue Monk Kidd, Pat Conroy, Anne Rivers Siddons), as well as the new John Grisham, the autobiography of Mark Twain, SIBA’s “Okra Picks,” cookbooks, field guides, kids’ books.

The bookstore doesn’t have a lot of events — there’s just not room — but Karen recently had a signing for silhouette artist and author Clay Rice, and there’s a monthly book club open to all comers the second Wednesday of the month. This week, readers met at 7 p.m. to discuss Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (you don’t have to have read the book).

I’ll have to let you know what the February pick is. Meanwhile, you can visit the website, http://edistobookstore.com (more pictures of Emily Grace and art by Clay Rice) or check out its Facebook page. Hit “Like.” And if you’re on Highway 174 on Edisto Island (an hour or so from Charleston off the Savannah Highway), by all means drop by the bookstore. Make yourself at home.

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