“The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son”
Author: Pat Conroy
Publisher: Random House
Price: $28.95 (Cloth)
This is not exactly an autobiography, although Conroy’s life story gets told. But then, as his prologue says: “I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years....My stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession….”
Readers of “The Prince of Tides” wondered how much was “true.” Readers of “The Great Santini” were afraid that much of it was true. The father in “Prince of Tides” was a mean, abusive shrimper. The father in “Santini” was, like Colonel Don Conroy, a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot who arrived home many evenings after happy hour to terrorize and beat his family.
Conroy pulls no punches. “I remember hating him even when I was in diapers.” And “I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate.” He was “a menacing, hovering presence, and I never felt safe for one moment….” “When I grew up, I found the word ‘father’ to be an obscenity.”
Pat Conroy had plenty to be bitter about. The oldest of seven children, he says that “five of us would try to kill ourselves before the age of forty.” One, Tom, at 34, directed by “voices,” would succeed. Dad’s family, the Irish, Catholic, Chicago Conroys, are a clan of violent misogynists, causing Conroy to loathe Ireland for many years, until he finally visited and fell in love with it.
Conroy is driven to tell again, for the last time, he promises, of Dad’s violence. One hears that, in families, no sins are unforgiveable and, in this final telling, the two achieve some reconciliation.
Over the years, especially after Mom, Peg, has divorced Dad and remarried, Pat and Dad talk, drink coffee, mourn the death of Peg. In the end, the Conroys will bury and mourn “Santini,” who never did admit to being an abusive husband and father.
Mainly the story of Pat and his father, there are also long, fascinating portraits of other family members. Peg had her own problems. Her roots were in hardscrabble Piedmont Alabama, but she claimed, falsely, a childhood of plantation luxury and graduation from Agnes Scott. Pat describes her as “Never …affectionate,” and her children agree she was cold and distant: “None of us ever sat in our mother’s lap.” Mother-daughter hostility being especially destructive, Pat’s sister, Carol Ann, a gifted poet and schizophrenic, caused some bizarre scenes at family gatherings, especially funerals.
The stress on Conroy himself has been enormous. A longtime sufferer from clinical depression, he recounts his own emotional breakdowns. Conroy berates himself as a bad citizen, fault-finding husband, father and brother, and claims “fully earned self-loathing.” Readers will disagree.
Much of this is grim reading, but there are light moments. At many book events the Colonel would insist on sitting next to Pat and signing also, all the while insisting the books were lies. The Col. hated anything fancy and especially anything French. At an elegant restaurant, Conroy surreptitiously ordered frogs’ legs for Dad and told him they were Bresse chicken legs. The escargot were presented as precious bits of special beef tenderloin. During the premier screening of “Santini,” in Beaufort, while Robert Duvall is terrorizing Blythe Danner and the rest of his movie family, brother Jim Conroy stage whispers, “Dad should’ve shown him how to take a family apart. This guy’s Bambi.”
Toward the end, Pat learns Dad has kept a scrapbook, the Archive, some newspaper clippings, reviews, etc. but also some items stolen on visits: a letter from President Jimmy Carter, two from Rosalyn, a note from Barbra Streisand and, most aggravatingly, “a letter from Martin Scorsese asking whether I was interested in writing a film for him. At the time I’d have given up the last knuckle on my pinkie finger to work with Mr. Scorsese, but Dad got to the mailbox before I did, and I didn’t see the letter until ten years later.”
Pat generously concludes: “He loved us , in his own way, with all his heart, but had trouble demonstrating that love.” We can only wish Conroy long life and peace.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”