Conroy pours lifetime of pain into his stories Close to Home


Washington -- You can't help liking Pat Conroy. Forget all the stereotypes of the private, guarded writer when it comes to this guy. He's a big, outgoing man with a ready smile and an engaging manner. He's got a million stories, mostly about himself and his pretty weird family, and he tells even the sad ones with humor and charm. In fact, he may be the world's nicest egotist.

He's a world-class raconteur, one who says he was influenced by the storytelling traditions of the two groups he belongs to: the Irish and Southerners. Here's a typical Conroy story:

"My father used to say that if he hit me a little more, I'd be a better writer. I told him, 'Dad, if you hit me any more, I'd be Shakespeare.' "

Yes, Pat Conroy can't seem to stop talking about himself, and he sure can't stop writing about himself. His just-published sixth novel, "Beach Music" draws heavily upon his tumultuous life, just as "The Prince of Tides," "The Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline" and his other books did.

If one must suffer for one's art, as teachers are fond of saying, then Pat Conroy certainly is a member of the club. For instance, most writers, when they finish a book, sit back and wait for the reviews to gauge how successful they have been. With Mr. Conroy, it's wondering which member of his family will stop talking to him.

So when the long-awaited "Beach Music" finally hit the bookstores last week -- nine years after his multimillion-selling "The Prince of Tides" -- his father called his home in Fripp Island, S.C.

Don Conroy, of course, may be the most famous abusive dad of this generation -- literarily speaking, at least. He was immortalized as the cold and cruel Bull Meacham, U.S. Marine fighter pilot and terrorizer of his children, in his son's 1980 novel, "The Great Santini," and he and his son have spent much of the last 15 years in a sort of did-not-did-so repartee about whether Don actually beat up his kids, as Pat has frequently said and written.

"My father called me up and said, 'I hear you made me a drunk judge and a general in this book, " Mr. Conroy, 49, says with a grin. "I said, 'Dad, can I get away from this?'

" 'Well you made me a shrimper in "The Prince of Tides." '

"So I said, 'Dad, every time I write about a father, I'm not writing about you. I'm sure there are elements of you, but I try to do this from a different place.' "

Mr. Conroy's father is still speaking to him, though. He'll even sign autographs "The Great Santini," and his son says with good humor, "Dad just likes being in the center. He likes the publicity. I called him the other day and he said, 'Did you catch me on the tube? I was great. You weren't worth a damn.' "

He tells this story, as he does so often, with an adroit mixture of humor and pathos. His books are like that, too: both funny and sad, and drenched with emotion. But that duality is what makes him fascinating -- gregarious and extremely funny on the outside, and brooding and intense on the inside. All his life, he has fought depression, which he calls "the Irish shadow," and he has had several nervous breakdowns. His life is not an open book, but an open wound.

And, genial banter notwithstanding, he seems permanently damaged by his relationship with his father. "In most writers, writing is also a means of exorcism," Nan A. Talese, his editor at Doubleday, told the Atlanta Constitution recently. "The violence of the father figures in all his books. I think this whole thing haunts Pat." (One of the father figures in "Beach Music," a retired military officer, is so unbending and cruel to his son as to be nearly unbelievable.)

The ramifications of that fractious relationship are seen in other ways. Mr. Conroy acknowledges, "I don't think I was a very good father. One of the things that always bothered me was how to show fatherly love."

Characters in flight

There were other aspects of his childhood that haunt him today. His family moved around constantly when his father was in the Marine Corps, and Pat Conroy still carries the scars.

"Because of the military life, I'm a stranger everywhere and a stranger nowhere," he once wrote. "I can engage anyone in a conversation, become well-liked in a matter of seconds, yet there is a distance I can never recover, a slight shiver of alienation, of not belonging, and an eye on the nearest door. The word goodby will always be a killing thing to me, but so is the word hello."

But, he says over breakfast in a Washington hotel, being constantly on the move had its benefits as well.

"It was hard moving around, sure, but if you were ever in a town that didn't work out, when you took off, you got a new start," he says. "You wiped the slate clean.

"And you could renew yourself. If you had messed up somewhere else, like you had been humiliated at a football game, well nobody would know it. And there was something purifying about it. I saw myself remaking my image every year."

Many of the characters in "Beach Music" are in flight, literally or figuratively -- Jack McCall, the travel writer who escapes to Italy when his tormented wife commits suicide; Jordan Elliott, a close childhood friend who becomes a political exile; and several members of the Jewish community in their South Carolina town who cannot escape their memories of Europe during World War II.

"Beach Music," like its predecessors, is set mostly in Mr. Conroy's beloved Low Country of South Carolina, which he describes in the novel as "this fragrant, voluptuous latitude of the planet, fringed with palms and green marshes lying beside rivers for thirty miles at a time." His soaring lyrical prose -- oft-praised but sometimes ridiculed -- lays out a typically grand story that includes the themes of suicide, betrayal, estrangement from family and country, the death of one's mother, the Vietnam War and the Holocaust.

It's a typically full plate for a Pat Conroy novel, and some reviewers have found it excessive. " 'Beach Music' heaves with self-conscious sincerity, its characters positively leapfrogging over one another in their race for the psychiatrist's couch," wrote Tom Shone in the New York Times Book Review.

But Mr. Conroy has his staunch defenders as well. Michael Harris, writing in the Los Angeles Times, declared that "largeness suits Conroy, just as minimalism has suited Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. 'Beach Music' is blockbuster writing at its best." Mr. Conroy's publisher, Doubleday, evidently agrees: "Beach Music" has a whopping first printing of 750,000. The film rights have been sold for $5.1 million.

Back to life

But even if Mr. Conroy manages to lose no more family members to estrangement as a result of "Beach Music," the book still has exacted its toll. His second marriage broke up during its writing -- his first broke up while he was finishing "The Great Santini," and he had a nervous breakdown late last year. He thought of committing suicide. And his youngest brother, Tom, who had suffered from schizophrenia for many years, leaped to his death from a building in Columbia, S.C., in August 1994. He was 33.

When he heard of his brother's suicide, Mr. Conroy realized he would have to change part of "Beach Music," which was nearly completed. It seems that the youngest fictional brother, John Hardin, was a schizophrenic who committed suicide. And suddenly he could not bear the thought of killing off his brother in fiction as well.

"I told Nan Talese, my editor, 'I'm going back to reconstruct the book to have Tom be alive,' " Mr. Conroy says. "I think having John Hardin commit suicide in the book reflected my fear that Tom really would do himself in.

"That's one of the things about fiction that I'm grateful for. If some parts of my life feel broken, I can fix them," he says. "I was able to bring John Hardin back to life, and it was better for me personally -- and for the book, too. The book is sad enough without John Hardin killing himself."

What is unsettling when considering Mr. Conroy is that he is in danger of becoming a self-parody. By now the image of those Battling Conroys is reinforced with every book he publishes, with every interview in which he recounts another story of how Dad used to hit him or his four brothers, or, now, the sad story of

brother Tom.

A sense of decency

Fifteen years ago, it was big news when "The Great Santini" came out and the Conroy family was torn asunder by its depiction of a violently abusive military father. Now the number of daily TV talk shows has reached double digits and Mr. Conroy competes in the public consciousness with Nicole Simpson "friend" Faye Resnick.

It's a shame, for although Mr. Conroy often overreaches in his fiction, the emotions he evokes are not false. He is unabashedly sentimental, someone who sounds utterly convincing when he says, during an interview, "I can almost weep when I see a father being tender with his son. It just kills me every time I see it."

But what does save Mr. Conroy from banality, from being relegated to the role of poster boy for the dysfunctional family, is precisely that sense of decency. It suffuses his books, his public persona. And the guy has an unerring sense of knowing what will move us.

Take this story, one Mr. Conroy has told many times: When the author's family sat down for a screening of the movie "The Great Santini," one of his brothers pointed to the screen, on which Robert Duvall, as Bull Meacham, was doing physical harm to one of his children.

"Wimp," the brother whispered to Pat. "He's hitting him like a wimp. Dad would have knocked the boy across the room."

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