THE DEATH OF SANTINI. By Pat Conroy. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 352 pages. $28.95.
Pat Conroy is one of those authors who produce stories and invent characters we might consider "larger than life." His prose is rich with sentimentality. He wants us to feel our way through his tall tales, not just understand them intellectually. His fictional characters often are based on real people, and their traumas and trials are the stuff from which Conroy spins his compelling, sometimes fantastical, yarns.
At least that's the impression I've had all these years, during which Conroy has produced blockbusters such as "The Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline" and "Beach Music." Then I read his latest book, "The Death of Santini," in which Conroy confronts his demons (that come mostly in the form of his abusive real-life father, Don Conroy). I then realized that the writer of all those heart-rending best-sellers was not exaggerating, not much.
It's true that Conroy, like many good raconteurs, tends to crystallize oft-told anecdotes based on his experiences and insert them into his novels. This could have the effect, as any neuroscientist will tell you, of reshaping or reordering the basic facts in favor of achieving some higher truth or pithy punch line. Conroy claims he is in pursuit of that higher truth. As a result, a few of the details in his new book might be partly manufactured or manipulated.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let me acknowledge that "The Death of Santini" is a ripping good read, and shocking to boot. If you thought the fictional Santini was a brutal patriarch, wait until you read about the real one. The guy was a monster, at least when he was attempting to govern his large clan. Eventually, Peg Conroy musters the courage to leave her "Chicago-Irish" husband, a man who keeps his feeling tightly packaged and tucked away, as Pat tells it.
But the memoir is much more than a recounting of horror stories; it is the opportunity Conroy has seized to think through his complex relationships. "I've been writing the story of my own life for over 40 years," Conroy begins his Prologue. "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."
His mother was beautiful, longing to lead the life of a Southern princess. His father was a highly decorated Marine pilot. His siblings, like him (the eldest), were emotionally damaged survivalists. One committed suicide; others thought about it seriously. Writing saved Pat. It gave him a canvas on which to work through his pain. "The Death of Santini," then, is his chance "to make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning, ... one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain a final time."
So let's give the man some credit. Still, reading the memoir I couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that Conroy was exploiting the emotional suffering of his family, that he was capitalizing on it and therefore, somehow, belittling it.
I know what you are thinking: All writers "exploit" the subjects of their actual lives. Aren't they taught in school to "write what they know"? Fine. But when I got to the chapter called "Trip to Rome, Georgia" in which Conroy introduces us to his mother's red-neck family, or the chapter called "Tom's Leap, Carol's Ball of Tears" in which Conroy describes his brother's suicide and the deep-rooted fury of his estranged sister, I wondered if the dead were turning in their graves, or if the living were not plotting murder.
So reading the book generates a touch of unease, felt more acutely during the many passages of dialogue. Can he possible quote this cast of characters accurately so many years later? Or is accuracy set aside in order to get to the essence of the matter?
Either way, the book delivers. Conroy's story about how his friend, Bernie Schein, once accompanied his Grandmother Stanny to the cemetery only to get lost among the gravestones is laugh-out-loud funny. The description of how Conroy's celebrity after the success of the movie version of "The Great Santini" led to the unlikely celebrity of his father is well told, though one could be forgiven for scratching one's head at the strange and sudden transformation of the proud Marine into a crotchety and likable geezer.
And Conroy's obvious sympathy and affection for his sister, the lost Carol Ann, is touching. One detects genuine pain and remorse over his break with the only other artist in the family. "Of all the people I've ever talked to about literature and books, Carol Ann was the most insightful," Conroy writes. "She possessed a natural gift for summation and a broad-minded affection of other writers' work. We grew up believing both of us would be writers."
Carol Ann is the second-oldest of the Conroy kids and the one who was most badly affected by her father's abuse, according to Pat. Her big brother was always in the middle of it all, either trying to break things up, calm things down or block the blows.
For all of Conroy's efforts "to try to make sense of it one last time," the book is strangely devoid of psychological insight. We're never told why Don Conroy was such a nasty man, though we are exposed briefly to his uptight Chicago family. We're never told why Peg remained in the marriage so long, enabling the abuse, only that Pat worshipped his mother.
We're told about the angst and anxiety, the contemplations of suicide, the trauma; we watch as Pat throws himself physically between his parents and tries to protect his siblings from his father's wrath, but Conroy stops there, content to mold these real-life episodes into a flowing, riveting narrative that fails to plumb the depths of the suffering that informs it in the first place.
Then again, we don't read Pat Conroy's books for their psychological insights; we read them for the colorful storytelling. On that count, "The Death of Santini" succeeds as well as any of his previous books.
"I was born to the house of a puppet master, the dalang under the guise of Don Conroy. His wife and children were servants to the terrible dream-scape of his most bizarre qualities. He came at us like a lord of the underground, his rule disfigured. His family grew up around him, and we made our own judgments and told our own stories."
And then Pat Conroy addresses his father directly. "By writing my novels, I tore the mask of the dalang out of your hands, Dad, and I decided to wear it myself. I've written about my family more than any writer in American history, and I take great pride in that. But your spirits deserve a rest, and I'm going to grant you a long one, one that lasts forever. ... Though I will not turn your way again, I would like you to take note that I still find both of you amazing, my portals into the light, and a myth and a narrative told in the rich mysteries of art."
Reviewer Adam Parker is arts writer and book page editor for The Post and Courier.