I was introduced to him the year before the birth of my first child, 1986. The book was The Prince of Tides. I was mesmerized by the lushness of his prose, its beauty and power, and the dark, disturbing story. Like all of Conroy's work, Prince was thinly veiled autobiography. To say that he had a rough childhood somehow sounds flippant. His childhood was brutal and horrifying, and the fictionalized version of it made for spellbinding reading. I was hooked.
From there I began devouring everything else from this modern day Faulkner. First it was The Great Santini, then The River is Wide and The Lords of Discipline. All were set in the low country of South Carolina, with its brooding marshes, succulent shrimp dishes and humid briny breezes. Each novel was a new chapter from the author's tortured life; Santini, the story of his animalistic marine corps father, River, the story of his short, unhappy year as a teacher of poor kids on Daufuskie Island, and Lords, the deeply disturbing account of his four years at South Carolina's Citadel. I would read his work in much the same way as a motorist stares at a four car pile up on the interstate, half expecting to see a severed head rolling along the road. But despite the bleak darkness of his life, there were moments of beauty made more compelling by the darkness. There was a tenderness about his heroes that survived the evil. Even though you knew there wouldn't be a happy ending, you plowed on because the beauty of his writing was worth it. He had the southerner's gift for story telling, the kind of stories that just couldn't possibly be true. As you read, you were convinced that it was all outlandish fiction right up to the very second when you discovered it wasn't, an artful turn of phrase that betrayed the autobiographers hand. It was then that you would shudder, and recoil a bit. Great writing will do that.
I became something of a Pat Conroy evangelist back in 1986. I gave the book to my sister, raving that I had discovered the greatest southern novelist since Thomas Wolfe. She hated it. Claimed it was too disturbing. She was right, of course. I soon discovered that Conroy wasn't for everyone.
His later novels, Beach Music and South of Broad werent as good as his earlier work, but still very good. In an interview he gave a few years ago he had said that growing up in a dysfunctional family had been the greatest gift any writer could have been given. His brother Tom committed suicide, his sister spent time in a mental hospital, and the author had two nervous breakdowns while writing, or at least two that his publicist will admit to. And now he has succumbed to cancer.
To read a Conroy book is like grieving for something. To become emersed in such a nightmarish life is to appreciate all the more the normality of your own. To imagine the Great Santini striding over his family like a simmering, hulking beast is to nearly cry at the gentle goodness of your own father. When I finished Santini I remember thinking, this is what life could have been like if I had belonged to someone else.
So, today I thank the great writer for making me love my parents even more.
Rest in Peace, Pat Conroy.