Novelist Pat Conroy returns with memoir of his father's 'second act'
By Bob Minzesheimer
Published: Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 5:49 p.m.
In his new memoir, “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son,” Pat Conroy confesses, “I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate.”
Donald Conroy, a highly decorated Marine pilot who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, lived by a warrior's code.
His son says, “Dad's job description was to kill our nation's enemies, and nothing in his job hinted at any obligation to be a good father or husband.”
Now, 15 years after his father's death, Conroy, who turned 68 recently, is asked if he misses him.
“A great deal,” he says with a crooked smile. “I miss how we argued and fought. I miss his total lack of modesty. I miss how, despite everything, he could make me laugh.”
The origins of Santini
Conroy's dad nicknamed himself after joining the Marines after Pearl Harbor and learning to fly.
One day, after practicing aerial acrobatics over Lake Michigan, he announced to his squadron, “I was better than the Great Santini today.”
The nickname, borrowed from a death-defying trapeze artist he had seen as a boy, stuck.
It became the title of his son's 1976 novel about a heroic but abusive Marine who beat his wife and children and was impossible to please.
Conroy, the oldest of seven kids, says his father was actually worse than the fictional and tyrannical Col. Bull Meecham.
But a strange thing happened after the novel became a movie starring Robert Duvall.
“My dad, always in denial, treated it all as fiction, like I had made it all up, not toned it down. To prove that, he reinvented himself. After my mother divorced him (in 1975) he had the best second act I ever saw. He became the best uncle, the best brother, the best grandfather, the best friend.”
Conroy decided to write the memoir “as a kind of summary” two years ago when he thought he was dying.
In an interview, Conroy off-handedly mentions he had trouble with his heart, liver and kidney and was retaining fluid. His doctor removed 11 pounds of fluid in 10 minutes, he says.
After two divorces, Conroy's third wife, novelist Cassandra King, got him “to clean up my life,” as he puts it. “Eat better and stop drinking.”
He's still hefty, with rosy cheeks, deep blue eyes and a hearty laugh. He married King a week after his father's death in 1998, and credits her for “a long repair job on the shape and architecture of a troubled soul.”
In his memoir, Conroy writes, “I don't believe in happy families.”
One of his siblings committed suicide. Four others, including himself, have been suicidal at one time or another, he reports.
And he's estranged from his 31-year-old daughter, Susannah, who's mentioned in his acknowledgments with an invitation: “The door is always open and so is my heart.” Does pain inspire art?
But what if he had a happier childhood? Would he still have become a writer?
“I hope so,” he says. When he talks to writing students, “some seem to envy me, that I had a terrible dad and this ridiculous family that gave me so much to write about.”
He tells them: “Writing is more about imagination than anything else. I fell in love with words. I fell in love with storytelling.”
Had he grown up happier, “I probably would be a different writer, maybe a kind of sun-struck Florida novelist like Carl Hiaasen, who's so hilarious.”
Conroy can be funny, but in a melancholy way. As for his style, he writes, “there are other writers who try for subtle and minimalists effects, but I don't travel in that tribe.”
His memoir is Conroy's first book since “My Reading Life,” a collection of essays published in 2010.
Kirkus Reviews calls “The Death of Santini” “the moving true story of an unforgivable father and his unlikely redemption.”
Jennifer Dayton of the Darien (Conn.) Public Library says: “Conroy's amazing voice is back and makes me realize how much I have missed hearing it. ... Happily, this is not anything close to a pity party, but rather a lesson about how redemptive the powers of love and humor can be.”
After Conroy's past two novels landed high on USA Today's Best-Selling Books list (“Beach Music” at No. 1 in 1995 and “South of Broad” at No. 2 in 2009), he's working on a novel set in Charleston, S.C., during the Vietnam War.
“My characters go to Vietnam, which I did not.” (He got a draft deferment.)
“But I had a lot of classmates at The Citadel who did. From those who returned, I'm going to steal their stories about the war and the madness they brought back home.”
With a smile, he confesses, “I always steal the stories of my friends and family. Around me, no one is safe.”
Bob Minzesheimer is a staff writer for USA Today.
Getting the gang back together
Author Pat Conroy loved the 1979 film version of his novel, “The Great Santini,” starring Robert Duvall as an abusive, larger-than-life Marine fighter pilot based on Conroy's father.
Now, Conroy has an audacious movie idea for his memoir, “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son.”
He's offering “for free” the memoir's film rights to Duvall, 82, and his three co-stars. All they have to do is reprise their roles in a non-fiction sequel about what Conroy calls “this ridiculous family I was born into.”
On a visit to New York, Conroy, 67, who lives in Beaufort, S.C., says he has sent his idea and memoir to Duvall, Blythe Danner (who played the character based on Conroy's mom), Michael O'Keefe (who played the son, based on the author himself) and Lisa Jane Persky (who played the boy's sister).
None have responded yet. It's the latest autobiographical twist from Conroy who's “been writing the story of my own life for over 40 years” in novels and non-fiction. If Duvall and the others join him, Conroy says he'll gladly write the screenplay for free or at union scale.
— USA Today
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