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A writer’s truest benchmark

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As a writer, we can measure ourselves against the elegant Pat Conroy, but until we truly understand his work, we might know exactly why.

By Steve Doyle

More than 20 years ago, a friend handed me a paperback and told me that it would be the most amazing thing I ever had encountered.

This was during the early days of John Grisham, the heyday of Larry McMurtry and the scariest days of Stephen King, but the book handed to me delivered a spanking new appreciation for any word ever placed on a page, opening my eyes not only to lives and interactions that were foreign to me but to a corner of the world that had seemed only an interstate-pierced wasteland until I consumed its descriptors in the graceful and alluring passages of this book.

That was The Prince of Tides, which to this day remains to me the greatest piece of fiction I’ve ever read, a first edition of which sits proudly among my collection.

I’ve returned to other books more often and more quickly, but never have I felt the characters and smelled the countryside more deeply than from the pages of Tides. In its narrative I learned what real writing should be, prose that sets a bar so high and far that I only know it’s there by instinct, not because I ever could approach it.

Its author is Pat Conroy, the poet laureate of the Low Country of South Carolina, and I’ve read and own every book ever written by him and about him, even going so far in my respect as to adopt the gumbo recipe from his cookbook.

Pat Conroy is not for everyone. He will tell you that his sentences are pretentious and self-indulgent, and his critics consider him a one-trick pony, a writer whose only story is about his relationship with his father. In fact one man, educated in South Carolina, won’t touch anything Conroy writes. “It’s always about how much he hates his father,” the man said.

About two weeks ago, Conroy released his latest book, The Death of Santini, and came to Louisville for a public interview session that overflowed its planned space and filled two rooms at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I was among those blessed to attend, thanks to the foresight of a wife who understands my appreciation for this man’s art.

If you know nothing about Conroy, you may have heard of his book-turned-movie The Great Santini, an Oscar-nominated turn for Robert Duvall, who played a Navy fighter pilot so consumed by his alcohol-spiced warfare and discipline that he abused his family with words and physical punishment that destroyed relationships and lives.

This was the fictionalized story of Pat Conroy’s own childhood as the son of Col. Don Conroy, an abusive and churlish bully whose ill parenting not only brought fissure to a family but sent two of his children to suicide. Pat Conroy says openly that he, too, is suicidal, and that’s why he tells the story of Santini, of his father, of love and relationships. That’s why he wrote the memoir The Death of Santini, to tie the bow between fiction and fact, fate and future, to end the greatest story ever told by him.

I had met Conroy once before, when he spoke at a luncheon for editors in Las Vegas at which I had a small, official role. He is not the overbearing and erudite person you would expect from his sentences. He is round, with a comb-over hairdo, unpretentious to the point of frumpy but intelligent and introspective with a humor and clarity to which all of us would aspire.

That ability to write about his relationship with his father in both daunting detail and mesmerizing metaphor is what separated Conroy for good or bad. It has made him millions of dollars, he readily admits, but those words also have helped him to leave his readers with great appreciation for what they had not had to endure.

Many fathers would be destroyed at being exposed for their belligerence. Pat Conroy says his father almost reveled in it, coming to call himself Santini, to talk about how that story had made Robert Duvall’s career – Godfather 2 may have helped – and how, even as his family was falling to pieces in his wake, the character he had become meant more than the character he lacked.

That night in Louisville it dawned on me that the reason I respect Pat Conroy and his stories – even if they largely are all about his father and somewhat about the weakness of his mother –  is that I found such renewal in my comfort and appreciation for my own parents.

We often measure ourselves and our lives by what we don’t have and haven’t accomplished, but isn’t our truest quality a sum of all the blessings that have wrapped and defined us? Isn’t the best of what we have attained far more important than any level we haven’t?

Donald Conroy, The Great Santini personified, never in 60-odd years appreciated his eldest son’s greatest gifts. He called Pat Conroy a homosexual because he was an English major who appreciated that the pen can be mightier than the sword (as someone named Edward Bulwer-Lytton first told us in 1839).

Pat Conroy, that eldest son, marveled at his father’s prowess as a pilot and had planned to follow his footsteps into that career until his inadequate eyesight rendered that impossible. He was in awe that his father was a strategist of the Cold War and fearless and strong.

But for all their recalled debates, confrontations and struggles, there were three words that Pat Conroy until now never could write for his father, three words his father never could speak to him: “I love you.”

From that understanding I take my appreciation for Pat Conroy, for he has underscored for me in his elegant nouns and verbs that knowing your father loves you is perhaps a gift immeasurable.

Moms count, too, but they can let the words and tears flow and wrap you in their loving wash. Fathers struggle to say those words, to show those feelings, to share those moments.

My father doesn’t have that problem, and, because of that, I now understand that I have enjoyed far greater success in life than the writer I most appreciate.