In Memoriam: Pat Conroy
If you’re a reader, or moviegoer, or avid gamer, or music aficionado, at one point in your life you’ve experienced transcendence. There’s that band, or book, or film that seems to speak to you directly and intimately, as if that artist was attuned to your deepest self. No matter what happens in your life you can always turn to that artist for solace or escape.
For me that person was author Pat Conroy.
I was deeply saddened to learn this past Friday that Donald Patrick Conroy passed away after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. He was seventy years old.
I cannot express how much his loss affects me personally, despite never having met him. Rarely do I get upset when celebrities (although he probably wouldn’t consider himself one) pass away. However, Pat Conroy was my favorite author and in addition to Stephen King, the author who inspired me most to write. When someone like that passes away, someone who feels like an old friend even though you never met them, it hurts not just your mind and body but your soul.
My first exposure to Pat Conroy occurred twenty years ago when I was a junior in high school. Once a quarter, one of our tasks for AP English was to pick a novel from a specific list to read and give a presentation about. That year I picked The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. At the time I was consistently a horror, sci-fi, and fantasy reader (shocking I know) but from the moment I picked up Conroy’s novel I was hooked. Never have I felt that a novel and an author spoke to me on such a fundamental level.
I was swept up in the tragic tale of Tom Wingo and his family. The southern mystique, which would become a signature mark of Conroy’s novels was captivating. The biting sarcastic humor, the importance of sports to Tom and his brother Luke, domestic violence, alcoholism, the horrors of war, and rape were all themes that blended together like a sublime southern gumbo. I wept at Luke’s attempt to keep his hometown intact, laughed at Tom’s attempt to destroy his psychiatrist’s smarmy husband’s Stradivarius violin, and empathized with Tom’s sister Savannah’s own personal demons. The Wingos were also a deeply religious family, Catholics like myself. Rarely have I seen an author perfectly capture the ins and outs of that religion. Yet despite all the tragedy of The Prince of Tides, Conroy’s novel provides the assurance of redemption and forgiveness. The film adaptation also received seven Academy Award nominations including Best Actor and Best Picture.
As it turns out those “personal demons” would have significance for myself in the years to come. In 1997 I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I had several instances where I came close to suicide before I was able to get a handle on it. The reason I mention this is because one of the things Pat Conroy was best at, was describing the horrors of depression and the tragedy of suicide. Probably because he experienced it himself throughout his life. The crushing darkness, the numbness, the inability to connect to your friends, family, and even God. If you haven’t ever gone through true depression, you’ll never fully understand it. Pat Conroy did. Yet there was always the promise of the old adage, “this too shall pass.” Conroy’s novels always provided the assurance of hope.
Perhaps the best example of mental illness and how profoundly suicide affects families was his novel Beach Music. In fact the novel is dedicated to his youngest brother, a victim of suicide. The central themes of the novel are generated by the main character, Jack McCall’s wife Shyla’s suicide. It also contains, without question, the best fictional chapter describing the horrors of The Holocaust that I have ever read. In it Shyla’s father relays to Jack why he detests him. Not because of any personal characteristics but because he is almost physically identical to the Nazi Commandant who raped his first wife in the death camps. Every time he looks at Jack all he can see is that man.
Beach Music came back into my life at just the right time when I was suffering the worst depressive episode of my life. Despite its themes, the novel and its ending ultimately gave me hope. In spite of my disease there is salvation, there is light at the end of the tunnel, there is hope for a better life. At the darkest time in my life I leaned on Jesus Christ and I leaned on this book. Jesus and Pat Conroy quite literally saved my life.
But of all Conroy’s books, the one that had the most influence on me was The Lords of Discipline. It also happens to be my favorite novel. It’s a book I revisit again and again and again. There’s many of Conroy’s trademark themes including the military, racism, mental illness, betrayal, financial disparity, and the Southern Experience. The novel also focuses on the transition between boyhood and manhood as told through the eyes of Will McLean, an aspiring author who attends The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. Incidentally, Pat Conroy also attended The Citadel. The publication of The Lords of Discipline, and the inner workings of the college made him a pariah for years. Although eventually, the college welcomed him back.
Ultimately however, the novel is about the enduring power of friendship. It is through friendship that we connect to the world, we become better people, we learn the beauty of kindness and compassion, and (hopefully) the realization of our best selves. I connected to Will and his friends Tradd St. Croix, Dante “Pig” Pignetti, and Mark Santoro in a way I never had before and haven’t since. It’s rare that I cry while reading a novel but the tragic death of Pig in The Lords of Discipline broke my heart as if my own best friend had died.
I stated how Pat Conroy influenced my writing life but also what I read. Authors inevitably share a love of reading, a passion for books. Conroy was no different, as he proved through his non-fiction novel My Reading Life. Not only did the book open me to new novels, it also helped me connect with Conroy on another level. It was gratifying to see a fellow author express his passion for books. It was just another example of how Conroy “got” me, and the anecdotes about how certain novels came into his life and what they meant to him were a revelation.
The mark of a great author, I believe, is that he or she affects you so much, you are compelled to suggest his or her works to other people. Pat Conroy was one of those people. It gave me great satisfaction to share his literary work with my mother, who ended up loving Conroy just as much as I did. What shocked me however was how my FATHER connected to one of Conroy’s books.
My father was a phenomenal athlete in his younger days. In fact at one point he even tried out for the Cincinnati Reds. He’s also never been much of reader, it’s just not his thing. In spite of this, my mother and I were able to convince him to read Conroy’s non-fiction work, My Losing Season. The book describes Conroy’s life long love affair with basketball and how much it influenced his life. The central story revolves around the final basketball season of Pat Conroy’s college career at The Citadel. In addition, the book also examines the lives of his fellow teammates decades after Conroy’s final year. I think it meant a lot to my father because he grew up in the 1960s during the Vietnam Era, just like Pat Conroy did. Just as Conroy’s works spoke to me, I think My Losing Season spoke to him.
Pat Conroy’s writing style was second to none. His descriptors, his dialogue, his plot development and themes–they were truly remarkable. Conroy was a master wordsmith, an artist who wrote imagery like Van Gough painted. Reading Conroy’s works was like watching crystal clear water rendered in slow motion. In my opinion, Conroy captured the Southern Experience even better than William Faulkner.
Words cannot express how much Pat Conroy means to me as an author or how much he’s influenced my life both personally and professionally. The literally world is a little dimmer today with his passing.
Rest in peace noble son of the south. I love you and I will miss you.
We all will.
You can follow me on Twitter at @Darth Gandalf1