In his 1976 novel, “The Great Santini,” Pat Conroy spilled all the beans that a good son is never supposed to spill: He wrote about his brutal father, his cowed mother, his frightened and abused siblings and his own defiant and terrorized young self — all thinly disguised, of course, as fiction.
Like Bull Meecham in the novel, Donald Conroy really was a Marine fighter pilot, really did beat and terrorize his wife and kids, really did drink to excess, really did swagger around and call himself “The Great Santini.” The book was a bestseller, and it was later made into a blockbuster movie starring Robert Duvall as the volatile dad.
All this caused enormous turmoil in the extended Conroy family. “Nice going, Pat,” Conroy’s mother reportedly said. “You stabbed your own family right through the heart.”
His grandparents, aunts and uncles were horrified at the airing of family secrets, and they picketed his book events, urging people to stay away. His siblings were divided; they agreed the depiction was accurate, but they didn’t agree on whether it should have been written.
And what of his father? What was the reaction of the brutal and sneering Great Santini?
Ah, well, guess what: He loved it.
Conroy, 68, lives in Beaufort, S.C., with his third wife, novelist Cassandra King. He’s the author of 11 books — novels, memoirs and a cookbook — most of which are about that brutal upbringing. His new memoir is “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son,” and Conroy recently took a break from signing books — 8,000 of them! — at the Random House warehouse in Maryland to talk.
“Here’s what I was trying to do,” he said. “I certainly had eaten Dad alive in the novel. But in this book, this memoir, I wanted to write about Dad’s change after the novel came out.”
After publication of “The Great Santini” — perhaps because of “The Great Santini” — Conroy said, his father mellowed. He started dropping by Conroy’s apartment every morning to read the newspaper and chat. He turned into the world’s most attentive grandfather. “My daughters simply adored him,” Conroy said. “I said, ‘Dad, why don’t you break one of their jaws so they can see what you’re really like?’ and he said, ‘Don’t listen to him, girls, that boy exaggerates.’ ”
His father still had a mouth on him, but, “I think he’s the first person I’ve ever heard of who changed his entire life based on his son’s novel,” Conroy said. “The book gave Dad a road map to not be like he was when we were growing up.”
The metamorphosis didn’t happen immediately, of course, nor did Donald Conroy love “The Great Santini” right off the bat. When he first read it, he was furious. Then he wept. Then he disappeared for a few days, and his family feared that he had gone off to commit suicide. Such drama!
But he came back, wrote an open letter endorsing the book, slapped GREAT SANTINI license plates onto his car and began showing up, pen in hand, at his son’s book events, where they signed books side by side.
“He signed longer inscriptions than I would,” Conroy said. “He’d write, ‘I hope you enjoy my son’s work of fiction,’ and he’d underline ‘fiction’ five or six times, and sign it, ‘Ol’ lovable, likable Donald Conroy.’ ”
A legacy of violence
Growing up in a volatile home had a profound effect on all seven Conroy children. While most of the violence came from their father, their mother wasn’t above fighting back, and Conroy has said that his earliest memory is of his mother brandishing a butcher knife, and his father knocking her to the floor and laughing.
“It’s hard for me to forgive the beatings of my mother,” he said. “For the oldest boy, that was by far the hardest thing for me to take. I’d try to defend Mom, but I couldn’t, I was just too little.” For much of his life, Conroy said, he has battled depression, anxiety attacks and thoughts of suicide.
Other siblings have also been deeply affected. His sister Carol, a distinguished poet, has battled mental illness and disassociated herself from the family. The youngest brother, Tom, “the prettiest child our parents produced,” suffered numerous breakdowns and finally leapt to his death from a Columbia, S.C., building on a summer night in 1994.
The drinking, the fighting, the public genteelness and the private hell (“My father had kept his abuse secret by mostly confining it to the fortresses of family routine,” Conroy wrote) — it all feels rather Southern Gothic, doesn’t it?
“It’s peculiar how geography shaped me,” Conroy said. “Certainly violence shaped me — being in a house where you never knew when you were going to be hit, or why you were going to be hit. These things have worked their way into my books. With me, it all went right to the page.
“I’ve met many, many writers who say they would never write about their family, never write about people they did not totally make up. But that is not the composition of my character. I’m fascinated by the people I grew up with, and the mistakes I made — and God, I have screwed up. I like writing about where it all went off course. How do you get it back on course? How do you live a good life? How do you live a life of quality? These things interest me a lot.”
The contradictions of life
“The Death of Santini” is filled with contradictions: Conroy hates his father, he loves his father; his father is a brute, his father is a pussycat; Conroy himself is tough, but he frequently breaks down and sobs — the whole book is both macho and sentimental.
This dichotomy makes perfect sense to Conroy. “I have found human nature a bit contradictory in my living of it,” he said. “Human life is incredibly strange.”
He writes by hand on yellow paper, leaving chapters on the stairs for his wife to find and comment on. (She leaves him her rough drafts on his pillow.) With memoir, he consults his siblings on their memories. “Sometimes I get very different answers, and different dialogue, and the point of view is different every time. But as the writer, I’ve got to figure out which point of view seems the most true.”
How true, of course, is open to dispute. “Here’s what my brothers and sisters and my father said: I write a lot about my family, and they are despicable, horrible, nose-picking, unbearable people,” Conroy said. “But the main character is always sort of cute, witty, all-knowing, philosophical, always has the last word, is always a fabulous human being. And it is their claim that it is always me.” He chuckled.
“I find that particularly good literary criticism, to tell you the truth. There’s always a version of me who is the narrator. And I make myself look better than other people.”