In his meandering new memoir, “The Death of Santini,” the novelist Pat Conroy alludes in passing to his own precarious mental health. “In the decade of the nineties,” he writes, “I was having breakdowns at regular intervals and was suicidal much of the time.”
I had the misfortune to encounter Conroy during that rocky period. In 1995, the author and I, along with his publicist, were dining at one of his favorite Charleston, S.C., restaurants, Slightly North of Broad. The occasion was a Philadelphia Inquirer interview about his latest novel, “Beach Music,” and his tendency to turn family conflict into compelling, if sometimes melodramatic, fiction.
After discussing the novel, I asked about the latest twists in his personal saga, which had just made tabloid headlines: his impending second divorce and rift with his daughter Susannah. He bridled at the questions — my attempt, I explained, to get past the familiar and anecdotal, to discuss the traumas that had not yet become fiction. “You got past it,” he said grimly. “Your problem now is getting me to say anything at all.” As Conroy silently fumed, his publicist evicted me from the restaurant, dinner uneaten.
On those painful subjects, Conroy’s memoir remains coy, while rehashing tales of his abusive upbringing. Fans will nevertheless find enough vintage Conroy, from the lush prose to the high dudgeon, to keep them reading.
As the novelist says in his prologue, “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.” In adding another memoir to his fiction, he secures his place with such other family-obsessed writers as Mary Gordon and Tobias Wolff.
Readers may already feel they know Conroy’s violent Marine aviator father and his entire dysfunctional clan from the indelible portraits in such bestselling novels as “The Great Santini” (1976) and “The Prince of Tides” (1986), as well as an earlier memoir, “My Losing Season’’ (2002), about a “ruined boy who played basketball instead of killing his father.’’ His new memoir’s title, “The Death of Santini,” capitalizes cleverly on his trademark intermingling of invention, truth, and verisimilitude.
Conroy remains a brilliant storyteller, a master of sarcasm, and a hallucinatory stylist whose obsession with the impress of the past on the present binds him to Southern literary tradition. All these gifts are on display in “The Death of Santini,” along with his propensity for purple prose, self-righteous score-settling, and lack of narrative discipline.
The memoir’s title misrepresents the book’s scope and focus. We expect primarily a probing account of the relationship between father and son — a potentially fascinating story about abuse, estrangement, and emotional healing. Instead, we get a rambling, sketchy account of Conroy’s troubled history, marked by depression, alcoholism, divorces, and family feuds.
In general, Conroy’s tendency is to ricochet away from the inner life to family context. He depicts the violent paternal uncles who added to his childhood terrors; his colorful maternal grandmother, Stanny, who abandoned her family during the Depression; and his flawed but beloved mother, Peg Conroy Egan. Though raised a poor mountain girl, Peg — like her son, a prodigious storyteller — “turned herself into a privileged belle of the old South, who knew well the languor of mansions and the smell of wax from candelabras after a ball.”
The line between fabulist invention and mental illness is a blurry one in this family. Handsome youngest brother Tom “would find himself so removed from reality that he would create a freakish world that only he could decipher.” In a moment of psychosis and despair, he leaps to his death, causing what Conroy calls in his dedication “the mortal wound to the heart of the family.”
Carol Ann, Conroy’s oldest sister and a poet, is prone to melodrama and hyperbole — not unlike Pat, with whom she viciously wars. “Her illness seemed manageable,” he writes with condescension, “crystalline in her acceptance of the augurs of our family’s destructiveness.”
“Santini,” US Marine Corps Colonel Don Conroy, remains his son’s most vividly realized character. “From the start he was a menacing, hovering presence, and I never felt safe for one moment that my father loomed over me,” Conroy writes, noting that his own role was to protect his six younger siblings and his mother from his father’s fists.
Conroy softened the story for “The Great Santini.” The real-life narrative later took some unexpected turns. Conroy’s parents eventually divorced, devastating his father. The man, spectacular in his blindness, would never admit to having been abusive. But prodded by the loss of his family and the novel and film adaptation of his life, he did begin to change. “There was something in my father that the book touched,” Conroy writes, “and it opened up a place in his heart that I thought had closed off long before I was born.”
As a result, Don Conroy becomes a model grandfather, almost tender in his devotions. He stops by his son’s Atlanta apartment daily for coffee and conversation. He appears at Pat’s book signings, eagerly sharing the spotlight. He even befriends his ex-wife’s second husband, Dr. John Egan, and keeps a loving vigil at Peg’s bedside during her final illness.
Improbable as it may seem, almost stranger than fiction, “Don Conroy had the best second act I ever saw,” his son says in a eulogy that serves as the memoir’s epilogue. It’s a moving transformation — one worthy of a better, more focused book.