When Ben Meecham, teenage son of Marine fighter pilot Bull Meecham, hears his siblings wail, he jumps out of bed, flies into the kitchen — where his father is choking his mother — and drives the man into the refrigerator. Momentarily deterred, Bull stumbles off into the night. Made to search the dark streets for his father, Ben eventually finds him passed out in the center of town and longs to "stomp [his father's face] until it was indistinguishable from the grass," "thumb … the eyes into permanent darkness … smash the testes until the life-giving power was extinguished forever." Instead, he helps his dad up and says, "I love you, Dad." Confused and repulsed, Bull weaves drunkenly away, while Ben, filled with a power he didn't know he had, giddily shadows his father's serpentine retreat, chanting, "I love you, Dad."
That scene from Pat Conroy's novel "The Great Santini" — about a crusty Marine pilot incapable of showing love to the tortured son who, despite all evidence, still manages to love him — illustrates the redemptive power of Conroy's new memoir, "The Death of Santini." Because he wrote about it, what almost killed Conroy made him stronger. His insights, tragically come by, meticulously examined and generously shared, are gut-wrenchingly human.
Conroy writes athletically and beautifully, slicing through painful memories like a point guard splitting the defense. He writes about the creation, publication and reaction to his books, some of which caused rifts in his family. He writes of his years at the Citadel, of his teaching on Daufuskie Island, of his weird, dysfunctional relatives, of the sad fate of his damaged siblings, of his own breakdowns and missteps as a brother, husband and father. It is a fast but wrenching read, filled with madness and abuse, big-hearted description and snarky sibling dialogue — all as Conroy comes to terms with what he calls "the weird-ass ruffled strangeness of the Conroy family."
But the best part is that Conroy comes full circle in his relationship with his father. It may seem unbelievable that anyone could love the Great Santini, but as the 65-year old author looks back, he is able to experience, in the examination and retelling of his tumultuous life, "a great lifting of the spirit, a cleansing and scouring and airy rising of the soul toward the light." And thus the reader finally understands how a boy who has just pulled the drunken hands of his father off his sobbing mother is credibly able to dance around that reviled man chanting, "I love you, Dad."
"For years," Conroy writes, "I was sorry I'd been born to such strange, volcanic people. I would never forgive the Conroy family for making me a stranger and an illegal alien in my own life. Love came in wounded and frantic ways to my dismaying family, but love it was."
Christine Brunkhorst is a writer and critic in Minneapolis.