The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son, by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese, 352 pp., $28.95)
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.
His next cultural bull’s-eye was the 1970s, with its peace movements, anti-military demonstrators, and early feminism’s obsession with what it called the patriarchy. Conroy had what it took to hit all three at once without leaving home. His father, Marine Corps fighter pilot Colonel Donald Patrick Conroy, whose nom de guerre was “the Great Santini,” was a harsh disciplinarian and believer in corporal punishment who regularly slapped or slugged his wife and as many of their seven children as he could catch, “backhanding” anyone left standing as he stalked from the blood-speckled room.
What a blockbuster bestseller this story would make in a country where everyone was saying “My father never said he loved me,” when “macho” was coming into vogue as an all-purpose libel, when the name “John Wayne” meant emotions shot full of novocaine, when hugging was approaching hysteria, and when the military was blamed for everything. Now was the time to write The Great Santini. “If I was going to be truthful as a writer,” the Great Explainer reasoned, “I had to let the hate out into the sunshine. I owed it to myself to let my father know how much I hated every cell of the body that had brought mine to life.” He began writing, and it worked. “I felt what truth tasted like, and it rolled like honey off my tongue,” he explained. “Every word seemed summoned and anointed with a limitless power over which I had no control. It delighted me, the ease with which the words appeared, with me as some involuntary instrument taking dictation from the stars.”
Conroy should resist navigating by the stars and get himself a good sextant, because his present book is an overwritten mess crammed with so much purple prose that it resembles a bruise with pages. He eats dinner “as the sun entered on the soft-gliding slipstream of the fierce Western horizon.” His father-dominated childhood was lived among “the caves and coral reef where the morays wait in ambush.” While a student at The Citadel, “I had forged my soul in a fire pit of cruelty and discipline and was not expecting those darkling, black winds.” Realizing that the military academy with its brutal plebe system was a stand-in for the Great Santini, who had forced him to go there, “my anger was now playing busboy to my anxiety.” Readers who are confused by dirty dishes in the imagery can try again when he confesses that the phrase dysfunctional family “has traveled with me as though a wood tick had attached itself to my armpit forever.”
The Great Santini always announced himself by bellowing “Stand by for a fighter pilot!” and then strode in. When the Great Explainer announces himself, readers must stand by for far-fetched metaphors and analogies. If he announces his “rage” at this or that, we must stand by for volcanoes, lava, forges, crucibles, and anything white-hot. A “truth” announcement? Stand by for cleansing, rising, soaring, flying, gliding, and anything feather-light. “Nowhere to turn?” Stand by for the thwarts-and-all landscaping of classical mythology: labyrinths, cul-de-sacs, mazes, and anything to get lost in. The book that was designed to write finis to paternal domination becomes instead one designed for sophomores who write “How true!” in margins.
It also reveals, intentionally or not, just how captive to his larger-than-life father he was and still is. His first two wives were widows of men who had served in Vietnam, which Santini did and Pat did not, and he adopted the children of the first. Under the guise of displaying his fashionable liberalism, he assays ever-so-subtle challenges to Santini, who was a conservative Irish Catholic: “I’d been set on fire by Vatican II and saw a church I could fall in love with. With the death of John XXIII, I began to lose the faith of my forefathers.” This has nothing to do with religion or politics; it’s an adult kid talking back.
The same can be said for his even more subtle answer to his own rhetorical question “How does God make a fighter pilot?” He replies: “He sends him seven squirrely, mealymouthed children who march in peace demonstrations, wear Birkenstocks, flirt with vegetarianism, invite cross-dressers to dinner, and vote for candidates whom Dad would line up and shoot.” This can be read merely as a generic description of a hippie, but it acquires significance in light of how often Conroy describes his shoes. Even if it’s the middle of the night and he is rushing to one of his many family emergencies, he almost invariably writes “I threw on my Docksiders.” The reader knows a crisis has struck and doesn’t need to be told anything else, but Conroy, who has done all of the other things in his rhetorical list, is compelled to mention the shoes.
The adult kid talking back turns undeniably mealymouthed when it comes to his nervous breakdowns. I’m not sure how many he had; I counted eight before I had to give up. Conroy must be the only memoirist who mentions his nervous breakdowns in passing, so that they read like footnotes that accidentally got printed in the main text instead of at the bottom of the page.
He never quite admits it, but he psychoanalyzed himself in his eulogy to his father in 1998: “Donald Conroy is the only person I have ever known whose self-esteem was absolutely unassailable. There was not one thing about himself that my father did not like; nor was there one thing about himself that he would change. He simply adored the man he was and walked with perfect confidence through every encounter in his life. Dad wished everyone could be just like him.”
After the publication of The Great Santini, a heated national debate arose over whether he was as brutal as his son made him out to be. Atlanta magazine came out with a cover story, “The Great Santini Talks Back,” in which Pat’s first wife praised him for being a wonderful grandfather to her children, and Pat was attacked by Santini’s Chicago relatives, including his priest-uncle Father James Conroy, who called his novelist nephew “a sack of Southern s***.” Constitutionally incapable of staying out of the brawl, Santini sat for an interview and said: “Pat’s an opportunist. Look at his record. He found out by writing the way he does, he has a captive audience . . . all the women of America, all the do-gooders, all the bleeding hearts, all the psychiatrists. They love that kind of crap.”
Divorced by now from Pat’s mother, he moved to Atlanta and showed up at an autographing session. When book buyers found out who he was, they asked for his autograph too. What was Pat to do? He couldn’t very well have him thrown out, so he invited him to sit down. Besides, it was good for sales: Santini’s line was longer. What started as a stunt became a custom; readers insisted on having both autographs, so they kept up the dual appearances through two more books. He attended writers’ conferences and was a frequent guest on Atlanta’s most popular radio show, where he gave advice on child-raising: “Don’t spare the rod. America is falling apart because parents are afraid of their own children. The father is the center of the family unit. He gives out the guidance and the punishment. He is judge, jury, and king. From him, all good things flow.”
Pat Conroy paints his strange eleventh-hour armistice with his father as best he can, as he must, calling it their “journey together” and a “pursuit of redemption.” Well, maybe. I am not entirely convinced by any of it, including the extent of the childhood abuse, but it doesn’t matter because it all led to the delightful final section of this sorry book. The Great Santini may have been a tough customer and not a man to cross, but his political incorrectness is like a breath of fresh air.
When hospitalized for his final illness, he yelled at his doctor: “Hey, Sinbad! They got any medical schools in Iran?” You gotta love this guy.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.