A couple of times while writing this review I almost typed “Bill Clinton” instead of “Pat Conroy.” That’s not surprising. The former president and the bestselling novelist who wrote The Great Santini have a lot in common. Their names sound similar, they are the same age, they look alike, both are southerners, and both have gotten into situations that require a lot of explaining. For years Clinton was the unrivaled master of this exhausting art form but he has been toppled by Conroy, whose new book, a nonfiction sequel to The Great Santini, is such a prolix apologia for his nonstop search for private demons that he has become the Great Explainer.
Ironically, what brought him to this questionable point was a string of good luck. He was born at the perfect time to be a product of the Sixties, and everything he did and wrote hit a bull’s-eye on the zeitgeist. In the civil-rights arena he became the first white teacher of blacks on the remote South Carolina sea island of Daufuskie, a Gullah-Geechee time capsule, where the direct descendants of the state’s original slaves had lived in such isolation that they had kept their African language and customs. Conroy wrote a self-published book on his experience, which ruffled the segregationist establishment, won him the appellation “n****r lover,” and got him fired. He rewrote his book as The Water Is Wide, sold it to a real publisher, and was profiled in Life magazine. Then Hollywood came calling and produced the movie Conrack, starring Jon Voight. Conroy said all the right things (“the cruel-eyed South,” “the apartheid South”) and the zeitgeist welcomed him as one of its own.