Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini: How it all comes down to family

Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy

 

Yesterday I finished Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini.

I knew going in it was a book about his father, legendary Marine aviator Don “The Great Santini” Conroy.  And I was already aware of the fictional portrait of his dad he had drawn in his famous novel The Great Santini, a treatment that alleged abuses of his wife and children.

What I didn’t realize was the way in which Conroy’s telling of his father’s story would become the greater story of his family, his  mother, his brothers and sisters, his aunts, uncles, grandparents, wives, children.

Nor did I know how much I would learn about Pat Conroy the man as he endured what he called the slow gestation period of a novelist.

Reading The Death of Santini did more than anything has in a long time to convince me how central the story of family is to every character, every book. The only living interface any of us has with history, our families determine how we relate to the world, to each other and to our inner selves.

Conroy strips away the niceties that so often shroud a family and gives us a front row seat on the real thing.

Not a single family finds itself exempt from that one haunted casualty who suffered irreparable damage in the crucible they entered at birth.Where some children can emerge from conditions of soul-killing abuse and manage to make their lives into something of worth and value, other can’t limp away from the hurts and gleanings time decanted for them in flawed beakers of memory….

Talk to me all you want about happy families, but let me loose at a wedding or a funeral and I’ll bring you back the family crazy. They’re that easy to find.

What strikes me about families is how messy they are. No one can account for all the variables, control the trajectory, bring precision to the arc of the story.

Conroy makes no attempt to smooth the edges as he relates his family story. We see death up close and personal, slow and agonizing.  We experience the helplessness of loved ones in the face of mental illness. We endure the jabs of siblings, the slights of family members who cannot even get our names right.

Yet the old family ball keeps right on rolling.

And when all is said and done the same people gather to mourn the latest passing, to laugh at the worn stories, to create new lies for future generations.

And occasionally someone mentions love.

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