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.
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.