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The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son

by Pat Conroy

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Pat Conroy’s classic southern novel The Great Santini is, in the words of the author, the story of his own family growing up as the children of a Marine Corps colonel and a sharecropper’s granddaughter. In his penultimate book, The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son, Conroy describes his actual life with his family and his father, Marine fighter pilot Col. Don Conroy, the original Great Santini. This nickname even appears on his military gravestone at the National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina.

I’ve heard this book described as a sequel to The Great Santini but it is more apt to call it the real story behind The Great Santini. One does, of course need to take such statements with a grain of salt, especially when dealing with published authors. I learned a lot about Pat Conroy from reading both books, this one especially, but I believe I learned as much by reading between the lines as I did reading Pat’s stories. It was obvious that everyone in the Conroy family became masters in the art of domestic survival and other forms of passive aggressive behavior. Every interaction they had with anyone was, first and foremost, a defensive maneuver. No statement was ever taken at face value. Everything said was carefully examined for subtext that could conceal a verbal attack. It’s no wonder that most of the Conroy kids considered suicide and Tom, the youngest son, unfortunately did.
I was particularly interested to read about how the family got on after Santini was published. While Col. Conroy was at first enraged by the book he soon realized that it was his ticket to fame and he embraced the roll, getting a custom license plate reading SANTINI and attending book signings with his son and gloating when his autograph line was longer than Pat’s.

I usually read two books at one time, one text and one audio and often make sure the books are of different genres so that I don’t mix them up in my head. This time, though, I read The Great Santini while listening to the audio version of The Death of Santini. The experience was a bit confusing but overall it was fascinating. It reminded me of “Ghosts of History” a website where images of soldiers from past wars are superimposed over recent photograph of the same location. It also showed me how actual people from Pat’s life became characters in his novels. Bernie Schein, Conroy’s best friend from high school can be none other than Sammy Wertzberger in Santini.

Bottom line: Having read both books I feel like I have an almost three-dimensional view of the Conroy family and of Pat Conroy in particular. He was a magnificent writer who took to heart more than anyone else Ernest Hemingway's statement that “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ( )
  Unkletom | Jun 17, 2017 |
A disappointment. That's my reaction to THE DEATH OF SANTINI. And I was looking forward to reading it because I was a great fan of Pat Conroy's fiction. In fact I very much liked THE WATER IS WIDE, THE GREAT SANTINI, LORDS OF DISCIPLINE and PRINCE OF TIDES, all books written thirty or more years ago. Then, sometime in the 90s, I tried to read BEACH MUSIC. I don't think I made it even halfway through before I gave up on it. I found it to be bloated and overblown with purple prose that often slowed things down and ... well, I simply didn't like it well enough to keep going. That was probably almost twenty years ago now.

Pat Conroy died last month, sparking a brief flurry of renewed interest in his life and work. So I thought I would read this memoir, his last work. My reaction to it was similar to the disconnect I felt with BEACH MUSIC. The language is simply over the top with exaggerations and reaching for I'm not sure what. Here's a sample, trying to describe his sister's poetry -

"... her poems form as slowly as Ming vases in her cunning hands. Her light-infused poems are webs of silk and gossamer. She condenses the Conroy freight down to a cell of light and a pearl of black sorrow."

I mean, Huh? And this is the sister he can't stand, that he's been estranged from for over twenty years. And there are so many passages like this here that I found myself scanning quickly over them.

DEATH is confessional lit at its worst. Conroy seems to be trying to expiate all his devils and guilt with the purplest prose he has in him, and some of it is simply tedious and dreadful. The book begins by describing what an abusive wife-and-child-beating brute his father was, and then ends by seeming to tell what a great dad his father really was. I mean, again, Huh? Maybe he thinks he explains this stew of confused and conflicting feelings by telling about his own long spells of suicidal despondency and depression throughout his writing life and how he got help from a marvelous therapist. Or by confessing what a lousy and perfidious husband he was to his first two wives. No wait, it was just the first one. The second one was the "bad wife." I can't believe I actually finished reading this book. Almost wish I hadn't.

Aah, I really don't want to say any more about this really rather bad book, written, sadly, by a guy who was once a very good writer. And besides, you're not supposed to speak ill of the dead. So, let me say this. Read the THE GREAT SANTINI. Don't read this one. It's too depressing and you'll end up not liking the author very much. But those first four books? Thank you for those, Pat, and R.I.P. This one? Nope. Not recommended. ( )
1 vote TimBazzett | Apr 16, 2016 |
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son is a powerful, emotional memoir by Pat Conroy. Most people know that Conroy has found cathartic inspiration for his writing from his childhood. Looming large among those childhood demons was his father, Colonel Donald Conroy, the inspiration for Bull Meecham in Conroy's The Great Santini. Don Conroy beat his wife and children and seemed incapable of showing affection. Conroy notes in the opening "I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction.... Only rarely have I drifted far from the bed where I was conceived. It is both the wound and foundation of my work."

Conroy was the oldest of seven children and seemed to have endured the brunt of his father's abuse. Five of the siblings would try to kill themselves before the age of forty; one succeeded.
Conroy notes that his father "could have written a manual on the art of waging war against his wife and children. I can’t remember a house I lived in as a child where he did not beat my mother or me or my brothers; nor do I believe that he would’ve noticed if both his daughters had run away from home. As the oldest child, my mother raised me to be the protector of her other kids, to rush them into secret hiding places we had scouted whenever we moved into a new house."

Conroy writes:
www.patconroy.com/the-death-of-santini.php

"When I was thirty years old, my novel The Great Santini was published, and there were many things in that book I was afraid to write or feared that no one would believe. But this year I turned sixty-five, the official starting date of old age and the beginning count down to my inevitable death. I've come to realize that I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day. I can't run away, hide, or pretend it never happened. I wear it on my back like the carapace of a tortoise, except my shell burdens and does not protect. It weighs me down and fills me with dread.

"The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn't sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates. I grew up to become the family evangelist; Michael, the vessel of anxiety; Kathy, who missed her childhood by going to sleep at six every night; Jim, who is called the dark one; Tim, the sweetest one – and can barely stand to be around any of us; and Tom, our lost and never-to-be found brother. My personal tragedy lies with my sister, Carol Ann, the poet I grew up with and adored...

"I've got to try and make sense of it one last time, 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 one final time. Then I'll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I'll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I'll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time."

And that is what Conroy is attempting to do in The Death of Santini, examine the wreckage of his childhood one last time. He also explores other experiences the also influenced his writing, like his time spent at the Citadel (The Lords of Discipline); teaching on Daufuskie Island, S.C. (The Water is Wide); more on his dysfunctional family and his relationship with his sister (Prince of Tides); leaving Rome to care for his terminally ill mother (Beach Music).

The Death of Santini is a more honest account of his family's dynamics than what is depicted in The Great Santini, and Conroy readily admits this. In real life, his father was actually even more brutal and abusive and his mother was less saintly. Conroy was actually asked to give Bull Meecham some positive emotional scenes for the book which were not true to life. All the brutal scenes, however, were based on real events.

This is a must read for fans of Conroy's work who want to know more about the personal connections between his life and his writing. The book includes 16 pages of photos.
Highly Recommended

Disclosure: My Kindle advanced reading edition was courtesy of Nan A. Talese via Edelweiss for review purposes. ( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
As unbelievable as it sounds this reads like a love-letter to his father. There is no denial of the abusive and narcissistic man we have read of in earlier works. There is also great appreciation of his father as both a man and a family-man. There's also a whole lot of crazy in that family! ( )
  nljacobs | Jan 19, 2016 |
I have read much of Conroy's writing, but I found this one to be the hardest to get through. I had to put the book down for a few weeks before I finished it,, in fact. I appreciate the writing, and I'm sure it was very difficult to write, but there were a couple of things that disturbed me. First, as far as prose stype is concerned, I had a difficult time in places following what was going on. There was a lot of jumping around from time frame to time frame. I understand that he approached the book topically, but I wonder if chronologically would have been better. Second, I was disturbed over and over again by the abuse that was simply accepted and seemingly forgiven, over and over again. Conroy writes as if his father was his best friend in his later years, but how is this reconciled with the man presented in the book elsewhere? I cannot imagine allowing someone that cruel to continue to have a part of my life. I felt like I was missing something. Perhaps Conroy has a greater ability to forgive than I possess. ( )
  hobbitprincess | Nov 27, 2015 |
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A memoir by the bestselling author of The Prince of Tides about his father--the inspiration for The Great Santini--and a reaffirmation that love can conquer even the meanest of men.

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