“There should be no sorrow at this funeral because The Great Santini lived life at full throttle, moved always in the fast lanes, gunned every engine, teetered on every edge, seized every moment and shook it like a terrier shaking a rat.”
Colonel Don Conroy’s Eulogy
(The book & movie The Great Santini was based on Pat Conroy’s Marine jet fighter pilot dad)
Yesterday when I learned of the March 4th death of writer Pat Conroy my first thought was that he was at the center of one of my fondest moments with literature. For one month in the summer of ’99 I backpacked around Europe with Mr. Conroy at my side—in literary form of course.
I have a distinct memory of being on a train in the Swiss Alps reading Conroy’s Beach Music and thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” It was one of those rare beautiful moments in life where you are fully aware that you are alive—and you at least have the illusion that all is right in the world.
Only later did I learn that it took Conroy a decade to write Beach Music. While some writers distance themselves from the autobiographical aspects of their writings, Conroy had no place to hide. He once said,“One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family” (I think Hemingway said basically the same thing), and Conroy’s own tortuous relationship with his father was the foundation for his life’s work. A tough price to pay.
His literary career started simply when he was a high school English teacher in Beaufort, South Carolina when he self-published his first book The Boo. He was paid $7,500 for his next book The Water is Wide, which was made into the movie Conrack. His book The Prince of Tides sold 5 million copies, and he also worked on the screenplay version of that book and received an Oscar nomination. A movie was also made of his book The Lords of Discipline.
If you’ve never read Conroy’s work The Great Santini is the one I’d recommend you’d start. And the single best movie scene made from his writings (and was reflective of the relationship with his father) was the following scene from The Great Santini.
Good drama, bad parenting.
A fitting end to this post is a quote by author and University of Iowa writing professor Ethan Canin (who Pat Conroy said of Canin’s new book A Doubter’s Almanac, “With this extraordinary novel, Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.”):
“I was driving the other day and there’s this this traffic jam, it was this miserable traffic jam, and I thought what in the hell is this? I finally get to the curb and I look up and there’s wild flowers in bloom and all these cars had just slowed down a couple of miles an hour to see the wild flowers. And it was this incredible moment where everybody who was on the way to work—they’re pissed off— they were still slowing down for the wild flowers. Not to sound too California-ish about that, but that’s amazing to me that despite the inutility of all of this stuff we are wired to just love this. To love gossip—which is what literature is—to love hearing about someone else. To love to see how other people have done things wrong. And also to rehearse for your own death. I mean that’s what reading is about. Generally most novels are about life. Many novels are about life, [A Doubter’s Almanac] is about life—birth to death, and it gives you a chance to look at it. Do it once, do it twice, read another novel. Read Moby-Dick, read The Adventures of Augie March, read some novel about a life and you can live a life, and imagine how you will face the inevitable.”
The Moment podcast interview with producer/screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Billions)
Chances are good that you won’t be on a train going through the Swiss Alps this week, but you can slow down and take in some beauty. Be it in nature, a book, a movie, or just hanging out with friends and family.
P.S. If you’ve never been to the South Carolina lowcountry where Conroy often wrote about, lived a chunk of his life, and where he died, do yourself a favor and visit the area. There’s much beauty and rich culture there, and Beaufort is one of my favorite towns in the United States.
P.P.S. Conroy does have a connection to Iowa, and it’s not the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but his father (Don Conroy) attended college in Iowa at Saint Ambrose College, and as a youth Pat and his family spent an uncomfortable summer in Davenport once while their military family was in transition.
Writing Quote #32 (Waiting for Tortoises) A great observation from Conroy’s book My Reading Life. (Loved his reading on the audio book.)
Tell Me a Story—Pat Conroy
Writing Quote #20 (Pat Conroy)
Writing Quote #39 (Writing in Paris)
September 6, 1995