Fiction is rich with hiding places—deep recesses of author denials and disclaimers. But in a memoir, there is nowhere to hide. Pat Conroy has been writing about his family for forty years, but always with a wispy protective veil of literary license. Devoted fans who have relished every fictional breadcrumb while speculating about the depth of the real-life Conroys’ dysfunction have been waiting a long time for this book.
The Death of Santini (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) closes a remarkable loop that began in 1976 with the publication of The Great Santini. Conroy’s second novel (published after his largely autobiographical debut, The Water Is Wide), Santini introduced the character of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meecham, a barely disguised depiction of Colonel Donald Conroy, father of Pat and his six younger siblings. The success of that book—as well as the Hollywood version starring Robert Duvall—gave Conroy’s father a strange, exalted status as a superstar abuser. He often sat next to his son at book-signing events, adding his own autograph when asked.
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“Stand by for a fighter pilot! I am the Great Santini!” When Pat Conroy and his siblings were growing up, they didn’t know that not all fathers announce themselves when they come home from work and line up their children for precision drills. “We were not in the middle of a normal childhood, yet none of us were sure, since it was the only childhood we would ever have,” Conroy wrote in a brilliant eulogy delivered at his father’s 1998 funeral.
As the eldest son, Conroy bore the brunt of his father’s violent rage, but all seven children were casualties of the emotional war at home. Conroy pulls no punches in the battle scenes, but he also writes with heartbreaking honesty about the last years of his father’s life. Redemption isn’t always warm and fuzzy, and years of abuse are not erased by sickness. But there are moments of real tenderness as the deeply damaged son cares for the frail fighter pilot.
Atlanta has been the scene of pivotal moments in Conroy family history. Don Conroy and Peggy Peck met and married in Atlanta in 1943, and Pat was born here two years later. Over the next eighteen years, the ever-expanding military family moved twenty-three times. But after seeing the world in service, the colonel retired to a small apartment in the Darlington on Peachtree Road, where he lived out his final twenty-five years. As an adult, Pat Conroy spent several years in Atlanta, including the time when he wrote The Great Santini. He now lives on Fripp Island, South Carolina, with his third wife, the novelist Cassandra King.
Conroy, who turns sixty-eight on October 26, writes in the prologue of The Death of Santini that this may be the last chapter to this particular story. “I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time,” he writes, “a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain a final time.”
Stand by for the son of a fighter pilot. Stand by for a writer.
This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.