Monday, March 07, 2016

Writer Pat Conroy delved deep into his own life for some unforgettable books

My mother loved Pat Conroy's novel "The Great Santini."

"Why can't you write like that?" she asked, a challenge more than a taunt.

"I'm not Pat Conroy," I said.

She patted me on the hand. "I know dear. You have your own books to write."

What my mother didn't know -- and I didn't tell her -- is that I had already read "The Great Santini." A marvelous novel, funny and horrific. A family story from Beaufort, S.C., a town not unlike Daytona Beach, Fla., where I grew up. At the time, I was a college grad working two part-time jobs and looking for something a bit more permanent.

I suspect that many of you have seen "The Great Santini" the movie but have not read the book. Not a sin, especially now that we have movies on our smartphones. Books, too, but they take time, you know, and it's more likely that I can free up two hours to see a movie rather than the 40 hours it takes to read a book. Imagine spending 40 hours reading rather than going to work? That's what I'm doing now in retirement. Reading, and writing a second book based on incidents, real or imagined, from Wyoming and Colorado.

I envied Conroy for his dynamic writing style. And his ability to delve into the intimate dynamics of a family and portray it for all the world to see. He paid a price for that. Family members, pissed off at Conroy's fictional counterparts,shunned him and said bad things about him in the press. They still bought the books. Wouldn't you, faced with the fact that your brother or cousin had written something salacious about you? Conroy had a big Southern family, too -- those book sales add numbers to the best-seller stats.

Pat Conroy died this week from a fast-moving case of pancreatic cancer. He was 70. Lived the life of a best-selling author and, judging from recent Facebook quotes, was a good friend and father. His family gathered around him as he passed. He was a writer who captured family life in a new way. And he was a writer who never let readers forget where they were. Usually that was coastal Carolina (S.C. -- not the northern neighbor). Sometimers his characters were at the beach or on the inland waterway or walking the storied streets of Charleston or were college students in Columbia, as I was from 1969-71.

Several unforgettable chapters in "The Prince of Tides" were set in New York City where Conroy's main character, Tom Wingo, went to assist his sister after yet another suicide attempt. Tom and psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein had some memorable encounters during the course of the book. OK, they carried on a steamy affair. On the screen, Nick Nolte and Barbara Streisand lit things up. The movie, I'm afraid, is not very good. The book? Amazing.

Most recently, I read Conroy's memoir "My Losing Season" about his senior year playing basketball for the Citadel Military Academy. As you can infer from the title, the Citadel team didn't make it to The Final Four -- not even close. The book, however,  recounts a group of young men who played on even while being trounced by every team in the South. It's a wonderful book, one that also served to repair the Conroy-Citadel rift that followed Conroy's best-seller about a school like the Citadel, "The Lords of Discipline."

Farewell, Pat Conroy. You will live on in your books.

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