The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy
- Method of Obtaining: I received a copy from the publisher.
- Published by: Nan A. Talese
- Release Date: 10.29.2013
Pat Conroy’s father, Donald Patrick Conroy, was a towering figure in his son’s life. The Marine Corps fighter pilot was often brutal, cruel, and violent; as Pat says, “I hated my father long before I knew there was an English word for ‘hate.’” As the oldest of seven children who were dragged from military base to military base across the South, Pat bore witness to the toll his father’s behavior took on his siblings, and especially on his mother, Peg. She was Pat’s lifeline to a better world-that of books and culture. But eventually, despite repeated confrontations with his father, Pat managed to claw his way toward a life he could have only imagined as a child.
Pat’s great success as a writer has always been intimately linked with the exploration of his family history. While the publication of The Great Santini brought Pat much acclaim, the rift it caused with his father brought even more attention. Their long-simmering conflict burst into the open, fracturing an already battered family. But as Pat tenderly chronicles here, even the oldest of wounds can heal. In the final years of Don Conroy’s life, he and his son reached a rapprochement of sorts. Quite unexpectedly, the Santini who had freely doled out physical abuse to his wife and children refocused his ire on those who had turned on Pat over the years. He defended his son’s honor.
The Death of Santini is at once a heart-wrenching account of personal and family struggle and a poignant lesson in how the ties of blood can both strangle and offer succor. It is an act of reckoning, an exorcism of demons, but one whose ultimate conclusion is that love can soften even the meanest of men, lending significance to one of the most-often quoted lines from Pat’s bestselling novel The Prince of Tides: “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.”
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It was interesting timing, because I picked up The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy immediately after reading Ann Patchett’s newest memoir. The difference could not have been more night and day. Pat Conroy does not pull punches, laying bare the very foundations of his childhood in a brutal way that manages to keep the self-pity at a minimum and, instead, tells a story of learning to live with the hand life deals you and moving forward to become a better person.
Filled to the brim with stories about his father, nicknamed The Great Santini due to his time as a fighter pilot for the Marines, Conroy lays out a somewhat chronological, and a bit repetitive as a result, story that shows the great strides his father took to mend, in his own way, his relationship with his children. Conroy speaks openly about the conflicted relationship he had with his father as an adult, the way his father was proud of him – even though much of Conroy’s success was built on how his father and mother raised him and his siblings, and also Conroy’s relationship with his siblings. In one heart-breaking chapter he talks about his younger brother Tom and the events leading up to his suicide. In another, he speaks about his sister, Carol Ann, and the tumultuous relationship they have had. What impressed me most was that while it was obvious there were issues in his relationships with those siblings, Conroy is also quick to point out their strengths and talents – not to make an excuse for what has been going on, but rather to show that there are other sides to them.
What I learned while reading through The Death of Santini, most importantly, was just how lucky I was to have a kind father. When you grow up in a household where the biggest conflict is a fight (verbal) between parents, as a child you may think that life sucks but out there, maybe even down the street, there’s a child growing up like Pat did, who is not only abused physically himself, but subject to seeing the abuse heaped on his other parent as well. At one point, Pat even mentioned that he looked forward to his father going away – a concept I cannot even wrap my head around.
This is not a memoir to read for happy, fuzzy feelings about the father-son relationship. Pat’s relationship with his father is complex and filled with pain. It’s an interesting story and there is no doubt that Pat is a masterful storyteller, but it’s best to take in small doses. I read it quickly and at the end felt so much despair it was hard to shake myself out of the funk it put me in. But then again, most of Conroy’s books do that to me so I should have expected it.
If you are interested in Conroy’s books (or even the movies) and the inspiration that caused them to be written, I’d recommend this memoir. It will give a good look at the circumstances surrounding not only the writing of the books, but also what was happening as they were produced into movies and as Pat went on his book tours.
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