I’ve been reading “The Death of Santini,” Pat Controy’s memoir about growing up under the rule of a cruel and despicable tyrant, his father. He earlier wrote “The Great Santini,” a vile, drunken monster who was his father cast in fictional terms. I admired the latter written in 1976 amd made into a fine movie starring Robert Duval as the brutal Marine Corps flyer who fathered seven children, five of whom tried to commit suicide at one time or other. A daughter, sensitive like Conory, was sent to the mad house because of the physical and mental abuse at his hands.
Conroy wrote other books (“The Prince of Tides,” “Beach Music”) but I couldn’t get into them. They were too florid for my taste with transports of fancy language that many say is lyrical but the English would call over-egging the pudding. I think it might be a Southern weakness. Although not a Southerner himself, Peter Matthiessen wrote like one. He won a National Book Award for Shadow Country, a one-volume, 890-page boiled-down revision of a 1,500 manuscript that had earlier sprawled across a trilogy set in frontier Florida. Beautifully written, of course, but you needed stout boots to traverse all that ground, and I dropped out winded long before the finish line. It’s my guess the revised Shadow Country would have benefited from even further trimming. Nearly 900 pages is a lot to ask of a reader and won’t be asked much longer in these Adderall times, except in science fiction where world-building novels seem able to go on forever.
I met Matthiessen once in San Francisco after the National Book Award had been bestowed. He was a tall, elegant man with a grave and patrician manner befitting a Hotchkiss School and Yale background, almost majestic in its way like that of a kindly king in a knightly fairytale. He was a Zen abbot at the time (he died last year at 81) and had been the founder of the Paris Review, which he bankrolled with secret CIA funds and brought on the likes of George Plimpton and Donald Hall as window dressing. He had done more things in his life than any ten men. I didn’t know he had been a CIA agent at the time we met, nor did anyone until Matthiessen confessed it to that great bore Charlie Rose on television in 2008.
I wonder if Conroy’s literary career would have amounted to anything without the richness of material conferred on him by a father whose transgressions – wife and child beating when angry and soul-withering sarcasm when sober and home on leave — would tax the genius of Dickens to fully develop on the page. Why was the old man such a bastard? We don’t know or at least Conroy can’t get into his head to tell us. He was like a malignant wind that blew open the door and hurled the family against the walls when he returned from killing the nation’s enemies. But the question that occurs is whether Conroy was a reliable witness. His agent said no one would believe a character that evil and suggested that he tone it down. It is hard to imagine what it was like before Conroy agreed to her suggestion. His mother and siblings were horrified by the book as it was, and said he had made up a lot of things. His father, who had nicknamed himself the Great Santini to compare his flying prowess to that of the famous magician, told Conroy, “This is the greatest day of my life” when the author gave him a copy. Then he read the son’s great outburst of stored-up hatred and bile, an act of parricide worthy of the Greeks. The novel, so transparently autobiographically everyone knew who was who, left the father weeping with rage and humiliation. If nothing else, it was a demonstration of the power of print. It is hard to believe anyone could be so self-unaware, but we all known people like that, right? Or maybe Conroy over-egged the pudding.
His memoir does have one good piece of advice for writers. Stay away from your kind. He writes that James Dickey, one of his teachers and the author of Deliverance, “alerted me to the dangers of the company of other writers. Although I admired the body of his work extravagantly, I never entertained the idea of becoming his friend. He was competitive, hostile and carniverous in his relations with other writers. When other writers gathered, I felt I had been thrown in a tank of moray eels. From the beginning, I distrusted the breed and made a vow to avoid them for the rest of my life.. Though I’ve made some great friends of writers, I’ve stayed away from most of them and it’s made for a better and more productive life.” He also made a point of not reading the critics. Wise words.