Pat Conroy puts Santini to rest

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Anyone who has read a Pat Conroy book knows that the author is very familiar with dysfunctional families. Tolstoy's belief that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" is given firm confirmation in Mr. Conroy's new memoir, "The Death of Santini."

Santini is the father character in Mr. Conroy's 1976 novel "The Great Santini." The new memoir tells just how close to reality the fictional character was to Mr. Conroy's own father.

This book is far from being just an "I was an unhappy child" tell-all book by an aging malcontent. Instead, Mr. Conroy presents the history of a family bizarre enough to rank right up there with the Snopes and Compson clans in Faulkner's novels.

According to Mr. Conroy, his father wasn't the only member of the family who would never be compared to Pollyanna. However, his father, Don Conroy, was beyond a doubt, the elephant in the room that no one dared discuss. He would never have won a parent of the year award from any of his seven children.

Mr. Conroy's father was a Marine Corps fighter pilot who was often away from home. When he was home, his strict discipline and alcoholic rages sent the children hiding in different corners of the house.

In chapter after chapter, Mr. Conroy gives the reader a front-row seat inside his childhood home. His recollections run the gamut from amusing to very disturbing. At one moment, the children are playing together, happy as kids anywhere else in the world. But in the turn of a page, Don Conroy comes home drunk and either belittles one of the children or starts screaming at his wife. Some of the recollections would fit right into a Tennessee Williams play.

What becomes apparent between the recollections are the strength and resilience of this family. As Mr. Conroy recounts how and where his brothers and sisters now stand in life, it is clear that they have all been affected in one degree or another by the turbulence. However, he writes in a way in which it can't be denied that he still cares for all of his family.

That doesn't mean he has forgotten the pain of the past. Recollections still seem to be right at his fingertips, ready to be put down on paper yet another time.

Viewers of the film "The Great Santini" probably will recall the scene when Mr. Conroy's character (the oldest son) plays a basketball game with his father. In this book, Mr. Conroy writes that Robert Duvall's portrayal of a bully who taunts his son and bounces a basketball off his head is just about identical to his own father's behavior.

Now 68, Mr. Conroy comes to the point in life when people often want to set things right. Many find that in looking back, there is a point where choices were made and change resulted. Somewhere, there was always what Robert Frost called "the road not taken." For Mr. Conroy, this memoir is a chance to justify his decision to transform his family turmoil into novel after novel.

However, Mr. Conroy also makes a pledge to himself as he recounts his family, and then tells about his father's final days as he succumbs to cancer. He makes a pledge to his deceased father:

"I've written about my family more than any writer in American history, and I take great pride in that," he writes. "But your spirits deserve a rest, and I'm going to grant you a long one, one that lasts forever."

Now that Mr. Conroy has boarded up the well he has dipped into so often, it will be interesting to see the topic of his next book.


Nan A. Talese/Doubleday ($28.95).

Steve Novak is a freelance writer living in Cleveland (

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