The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy

 I’ve enjoyed almost all of Pat Conroy’s books because he is just such an entertaining writer and storyteller. His sense of humor is fantastic, and the dialogue between his characters is often hilarious, even as he tells stories with horrific and heartbreaking elements: child and spousal abuse, rape, torture and racism, etc. His protagonists find a way to laugh at the world because they don’t have any more tears.

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Conroy’s odes to the South – its landscapes, its culture, its people – are also always beautifully done.  I love how Conroy pays homage to the bayou, dripping Spanish moss, and humidity. I appreciate those descriptions as much now, living in that very environment, as I did when reading about it while buried under three feet of snow at my various alma maters.


So I picked up Conroy’s latest, The Death of Santini, pretty much as an automatic reflex: if he wrote it, it’s probably pretty good and at least entertaining.  While all of Conroy’s books are, at some level, based on his own life, The Death of Santini is supposedly strictly autobiographical. In it, he tells the “back story” of what his own family was really like (as opposed to the loosely-based fictional characters in such novels and movies as The Great Santini, The Water is Wide, Prince of Tides, or Beach Music). He also relates his family’s various reactions to the mild fame he experienced from these books.

So here's how Conroy's latest book is getting a spot on the blog. As Conroy describes reading to his mother during her chemotherapy, he relates that he “would always start out with Dunkirk, by Robert Nathan…then I would switch over to Dylan Thomas, and James Dickey, and Carol Ann’s [Conroy’s sister] book of poetry The Jewish Furrier.” A quick Google search revealed that, yes, for real, this is the title poem of her poetry volume. Later in the book, Conroy remembers visiting Chicago, his father’s hometown, for the first time: “When I read Saul Bellow’s psalm to the city, the immortal The Adventures of Augie March, I felt cheated out of a natural birthright.” I find this sentence fascinating, as I was under the impression that one of the main themes of Augie March was this precise question of birthright  - but it was supposed to be remarkable that Augie (or Bellow) felt “at home” enough to declare himself an “American, Chicago born.” And here Conroy, a white, Catholic guy, son of a southern military hero, is jealous of Augie’s birthright?


Is it a clue that, in Death of Santini, Conroy relates that one of his closest friends, from junior year at Beaufort High School on, was a man named Bernie Schein? Bernie and Conroy apparently remain close friends, and Conroy describes an incident from the early years of their friendship in which Conroy’s maternal cousins from the backwoods Piedmont were visiting: “Through my living room window, I watched horrified as Bernie Schein made his way up my driveway…I sprang to my feet and met him halfway up the drive and put both my hands around his throat. I said, ‘I don’t have time to explain it to you. But my Alabama relatives are visiting Stanny. They’re country people and they have never met a profane, foulmouthed Jew who spends most of his time making fun of the baby Jesus…’” Both Bernie and Conroy survive the episode with much profanity and vulgar wit.


In Beach Music, the protagonist’s wife is dealing with spiraling depression that apparently was mainly caused by the fact that both her parents were Holocaust survivors, and the mood around the house tended towards macabre and fearful with liberal sprinklings of guilt (though my description doesn’t do them justice – Conroy makes these parents very sympathetic characters). In Prince of Tides, the main character’s psychiatrist is Jewish, and this actually seems to be a part of her allure. Of course in the movie version the psychiatrist is played by Barbra Streisand, which automatically categorizes the movie as a “Jewish” film.


So I just wonder: when one considers the general milieu and standard components of Conroy’s novels – backwoods bayous, the deep South, shrimp, the military (specifically the Marines and the Citadel), southern belle women, and large Catholic families – the presence of any Jews is sort of going to stand out. When I think of typical Southern writers – such as Faulkner or Flanner O’Conner – I certainly don’t find any indication of similar favorable feelings towards Jews.

Yet Conroy seems to have a special place in his heart and his writing – as does his sister, it seems – for noble Jewish characters.  Perhaps Conroy sympathizes in general with the underdog and minorities – such as the Gullah children of Water is Wide, and the beleaguered one black cadet in Lords of Discipline.  Perhaps, just as he pays tribute in various ways to his family members by basing characters on each of them, he is paying tribute to his good and close friend Bernie Schein. Perhaps he wants to portray a full picture of the South as he knew it, and Jews have always been a part of that South – which Conroy might have fully recognized, given that he wrote the introduction to the academic text The Provinicials: A Personal History of Jews in the South by Eli Evans. *

In terms of The Death of Santini in general, I might say that I wouldn’t want to be part of that Thanksgiving family dinner. Not when Conroy describes his brother Tim, for example, as “overemotional, excitable, and passionate. From his birth, the Bermuda Triangle – the family name for the three middle children – has picked on Tim and worried him to the point of hysteria…he would react with a cloistered rage…” and that when they all sat around at his father’s last breaths, his other brother Mike “continued to check the baseball scores.” It’s one thing to have those feelings about your family members, and another thing to put it in out there in print.


I also didn’t find The Death of Santini as entertaining as his actual novels, probably from the lack of a real plot. As I mentioned, one of the great things about Conroy’s novels is the brilliant and witty dialogue, but that same feature doesn’t work as well here, as it’s hard to believe he can really recount such conversations from thirty years ago. I’d certainly find it interesting to see if Conroy has ever spoken or written about some of his Jewish characters.





* Sometimes people are surprised to learn that America’s oldest Reform Jewish congregation is Savannah, and was established in 1733. 

Tinderbox by Lisa Gornick

Tinderbox is an extremely fun novel. It moves quickly but not without astute and witty insight. Each character is engaging and surprising. Looking back as I write this, I realize that there is no well-defined plot per se, but somehow that didn’t seem a problem: the driving question of the book is whether all of these people will sort their issues out in time before someone goes completely nuts.

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Gornick tells the story of Myra, a divorced Manhattan psychotherapist, and Myra's two grown children. Myra's son, Adam, his Moroccan Jewish wife Rachida, and their five-year-old are coming to move in with her while Rachida finishes her medical residency. Her daughter, Caro, runs a successful non-profit preschool, the toast of the Upper West Side, yet has resigned herself to being her mother’s companion and no one else’s. Myra loves her routine and well-ordered house, but, as the book title suggests, there is a lot of brush to be cleared. Myra hires a live-in maid/nanny, Eva, to come help with her new semi-permanent houseguests. Eva’s unpredictable nature and own issues set everyone just off balance enough that it isn’t long before drama erupts.

I only had two gripes with the book. The first is that the “tinderbox” symbolism felt just a little too obvious. I mean, the climax of the book is an actual fire in Myra’s house. All the while Myra is obsessed with always keeping total control over her emotions, Caro has major repression about some teenage trauma, both Rachida and Adam are finding themselves with homosexual tendencies, and clearly everyone is headed for a fiery meltdown. It all certainly kept the book moving, but did Gornick really need to hit us over the head and put in that Adam has a mild obsession with smoke jumpers and one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses that burned, too?

My other complaint is that I was so intrigued by Myra’s apparent connections to the Jewish community of Iquitos – I actually thought that much more of the book would explore this fascinating aspect of Jewish history - but we only get a few tantalizing bits. When Myra first begins looking for live-in help, she contacts one of her distant cousins who lives in Iquitos, to see if she knows of anyone who might want to come au pair in America for awhile. The cousin recommends Eva, and relates “Eva’s story about a great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side who was Jewish, a secret Eva’s mother had kept from Eva’s father but had given Eva an amulet shaped like a hand to prove…Alicia [Myra’s cousin] immediately recognized Eva as one of the mestizo self-proclaimed Jews from Iquitos over which her Lima synagogue has been divided for years – most of the Ashkenazi congregation wanting nothing to do with these third- and fourth-generation offspring of Sephardic turn-of-the-century traders and their Indian common-law wives, whom they view as having no legitimate claim to Jewish identity…”

But when Eva comes, the storyline about her interest in Judaism seems to take a back “burner” (hey, I can play the theme too…). Myra sends her off to take Judaism classes at a local synagogue, but never attends with her and rarely asks about the classes. It is almost as though the book is too short and too full of other interesting stories to pursue much about what Eva actually learns about Judaism and how or whether she shares it with the other people in the house.  

Equally intriguing is Rachida’s background. Rachida’s father’s family is all still in Morocco, despite the fact that it is no longer so friendly to Jews. “ ‘All of my mother’s family and most of his left for Israel and Canada, but he felt this loyalty to the Moroccan monarchy because they’ve historically protected the Jews. I would spit facts at him: Look at the torture Hassan II committed. Look at the current king. He’ll irrigate a desert to make a golf course and let children in the south die from meningitis….’” Later, when Adam and Rachida actually visit her family in Morocco, a cousin explains: “ ‘We are…Jewish Berbers. Our family have been here for nearly fifteen hundred years. Raquel’s family are…the exiles from Spain. Because our father and Uri’s father grew up in a remote village, speaking only Berber, she thinks we are inferior to her family which six hundred years ago lived in Seville.’”

Eva and Rachida’s Jewish backgrounds, different from the usual Upper West Side varieties that Myra and her friends usually encounter, are certainly food for thought in the constant discussions (in rabbinic and Jewish professional) circles about Jewish identity. Myra’s ex-husband argues with Adam when he hears that Eva wants to provide a Christmas tree for Adam’s son:  

“ ‘Eva says her mother always had a Christmas tree.’

‘I thought Eva considers herself a Jew.’

‘Not considers, Dad. Is a Jew.’

‘How can she claim she’s Jewish? She wouldn’t know if you ate matzoh at Passover or Hanukkah.’

‘It’s not a question of claim. It’s how she feels. She feels Jewish.’

‘Fine, I feel Chinese. That doesn’t make me Chinese….I don’t live as a Jew. I haven’t been in a synagogue since I moved out of my parents’ home. But I am a Jew. It was the soup in which I was raised…’

‘Who gave you the mantle to decide what identities people can take. She’s as much a Jew as you are…perhaps more so, because…it defines her. You’re a passive Jew. You don’t have to do anything to be a Jew. She struggles day by day to create herself as a Jew.’

Adam senses that his father…is torn between his intellectual honesty and his adherence to a crusty cynicism, which will inevitably win out in the exchange.

‘You’re getting a little liberal-artsy for me. A little theoretical-schmetical. Let’s keep it simple. Does she eat bagels and lox? Does she like celery soda? Does she cringe when she sees those bloodied dolls nailed to their plastic crosses? That’s how you tell if she’s a Jew.’”

Again, unfortunately, this conversation about Eva doesn’t seem to “go” anywhere. There is a lot of other drama with Eva regarding some childhood trauma and her poverty and more, but it might have been interesting if Gornick had made Eva’s own exploration with Judaism, and how (or if) she discussed it with the family, a bit more central and meatier.

Gornick has a way of perfectly capturing and articulating little psychological irritations, such as the father’s indecision between “intellectual honesty” and “crusty cynicism.” When Adam attempts to distract himself by reading the New York Times, and finds that despite his attempts to “plow through a long piece in the Science section on the genetics of birds’ innate migratory patterns…the meaning of each word dissolves with the arrival of its successor” I smiled, recognizing that exact inability to focus.  Gornick reminds me of the way Henry James (also known for his psychological insight) can also seem capture feelings and personalities with just the right turn of phrase.  But Tinderbox is not Henry James. It probably borders on chick lit, with the majority of the plot being family drama and interrelationships, but it’s certainly chick lit with wit and substance. And if nothing else, my interest was certainly sparked in regard to Peruvian Jewish communities.  

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