Saturday, December 7, 2013

20 years… or things I have in common with Pat Conroy

Yesterday, was my husband's ex daughter's 20th birthday.  Surprisingly enough, we didn't talk about her at all.  We usually talk about my husband's kids on significant days like their birthdays or on Christmas.  I don't know if he thought about her at all.  I did, in a fleeting way.  I have only met her once, but she's still my husband's kid and he loves her, despite her painful rejection of his affections.

I don't like my husband's kids.  I liked them when I met them and I know they've been used as pawns and were lied to.  But that doesn't change the way they've behaved.  I never had enough time to get to know them and understand why they are the way they are.  I've only seen the aftermath of their actions, which were devastating and deeply painful to their father and to me, simply because I happen to live with and love their dad.  And so, as curious as I am about them and as sorry as I am that things are the way they are, I don't want to know them.

Curiously, as I write this, I am also thinking about Pat Conroy's latest book, The Death of Santini.  Pat Conroy and I share some common experiences.  We are both children of alcoholic, abusive military officers.  We were both born and raised in the South.  We have lived and spent time in some of the same places.  We both have Celtic origins.  And like my husband, Pat Conroy has a daughter who doesn't speak to him.

Conroy's daughter, Susannah, is a product of his second marriage.  She was born in Italy, where Conroy and his second wife, Lenore, were living at the time.  If you read Conroy's novel, Beach Music, you get a sense of her.  It seems to me it was around the time that novel came out that Susannah quit talking to her father.  I'm sure the book and her parents' divorce had a lot to do with that decision.  As I don't know what it's like to live with Pat Conroy, I can't say whether or not the decision was ultimately justified.  I will say that based on what Conroy writes in The Death of Santini, his second wife had things in common with Bill's ex wife.

Conroy's latest book also deals a lot with the divorce and death of his parents.  He adored his mother, though admits that she was a very flawed person.  Conroy's books always feature a beautiful mother figure who is both vain and ambitious.  He had a complicated love/hate relationship with his fighter pilot father, whom he alternately describes as a heartless tyrant and a comical, larger than life, hero of a man.

While my own parents aren't quite as vivid as Conroy's parents apparently were, I am familiar with the roles.  My dad was an Air Force navigator who had ambitions to be a pilot and once told me that had he done it over, he would have joined the Marines and been a fighter pilot.  My mother is a beautiful, classy woman who always seemed to aspire to better living.  Without benefit of a bachelor's degree, she ran her own business for about 30 years and played organ for local churches.  They are still married and will celebrate 56 years of marriage three days after Christmas.  Or… maybe my mom will remember it. My dad has pretty severe dementia these days.

Conroy's book has him sort of reconciling with his parents.  I don't know if it really happened the way he describes it, though it makes for a hell of a story.  I feel sure I won't reconcile with my dad because my dad is not in his right mind and lives about 1500 miles away from me.  I mostly get along with my mother, when she's not in a mood.

I have three sisters, too.  They are much older and we've never been very close.  I have a cordial relationship with two of my sisters and pretty much avoid talking to the third one.  Like me, Conroy has a sister who is at odds with him.  However, my sister is not quite as brilliant or batshit crazy as Conroy's apparently is.  Carol Conroy is a poet and, reading her brother's book, I'm led to believe that she's brilliant.  I see on Amazon.com that she has one book currently available called The Beauty Wars and on the book's cover, she's called Carol "Yonroy".  I don't read a lot of poetry, but somehow I don't doubt that Pat's sister is talented… though not nearly as famous as he is.  I have a feeling that she deeply resents that.

On the other hand, Conroy seems to have a mostly convivial relationship with his brothers, two of whom worked at "Bull Street", which is where the state mental hospital in South Carolina was located. I am familiar with that complex because I, too, worked there when I lived in South Carolina.  I worked for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) as a graduate assistant.  I want to say the state mental hospital had been relocated by that time… I think it's now on Farrow Road.  But the buildings are still there and if you read Conroy's novels, you will read his references to it.  It's where they used to send the crazy folks.

Pat Conroy's youngest brother, Tom, had schizophrenia and spent a lot of time on "Bull Street".  He spent a lot of time as a crazy derelict, wandering around Columbia, getting into legal trouble, and eventually taking his own life.  Pat writes about this in his book and it was eerie to read, since his brother killed himself by jumping off the 14th floor of the Cornell Arms apartment building, which is just kitty cornered to the South Carolina Statehouse.  I used to walk and jog around that area a lot and I know just where that building is located.  Tom Conroy died in August 1994, just months after I finished my college degree at Longwood College and only a few years before I would matriculate at the University of South Carolina, where Conroy (after earning a degree at The Citadel) and his siblings also studied.

In one part of his latest book, he writes about delivering a eulogy for James Dickey on the campus at USC… in the Horseshoe, where he could easily see the building where his brother died.  I spent a lot of time on the Horseshoe, a beautiful, historic, lush part of campus.  And when I was a student at Longwood, I had a couple of professors who earned their doctoral degrees at USC.  One of my professors studied under Dickey and went drinking with him.  Though I didn't study English at USC, I often felt a tug toward that department when I would see writers come to speak there.  Pat Conroy spoke at USC in 2000; he was a last minute replacement for the late Kurt Vonnegut, another favorite writer who had to cancel because of a house fire.  I would have gone to hear either of them speak, but I was delighted that Conroy visited… I even flunked a healthcare finance exam so I could attend.  Granted, I probably would have flunked the exam regardless, but Conroy gave me a good reason to quit studying.  In the grand scheme of things, passing the exam ultimately wouldn't have made a difference in my life.  Technically, I got a D on the exam, but ended up passing the class with a suitable grade.

Anyway… I suppose this post has rambled on long enough.  I just wanted to put in words these thoughts, which don't really belong in a book review, but are still in my head.  I really feel a kinship with Pat Conroy, not just because he's a southern writer, but because his life has many parallels to mine.  And we both share a love of ribald humor.  If you're a Conroy fan, I recommend reading his latest non-fiction effort.  In fact, I would say that as much as I like his novels, his non-fiction books are far better in my opinion.  But I guess he had to become famous by fictionalizing his life story in several novels before people would care about the real story.





2 comments:

  1. I took a class in regional literature last year. The only thing of value I took from it that I didn't have going into it was exposure to Conroy's writings. I'm not a southerner but enjoy his works nonetheless.

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    1. Most of Pat Conroy's books are basically the same story. But he has such a way with language that his novels can be a joy to read. I didn't like his last one, South of Broad, so much, but the others are very entertaining. I love his non-fiction books even more, though. He has led a very interesting life. I imagine he's not too easy to live with, though.

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