I’m about to break one of my own rules.
Every time someone famous dies, I’m usually quick to criticize people for making the death of a celebrity “about them.” It’s okay to take a solemn moment and reflect on a world without David Bowie or Abe Vigoda, but cool it with the weeping and gnashing of teeth already. It seems like a lot of famous people have died this year. I don’t think there’s anything ‘cursed’ about 2016: it seems reasonable to assume that when a lot of people are born at the same time, a lot of them will probably die around the same time. And, in some cases (Lemmy) you have to be amazed they lived that long in the first place.
But when I got the news that Pat Conroy, author of The Prince Of Tides, The Great Santini and many other books had died, I had to make it ‘about me.’ More than any other fallen artist, his work has become an irreversible part of who I am, and has become part of my personal perspective in ways I’d never considered before his passing.
The two authors I’ve read the most are Conroy and Stephen King. As a tween/teen, King’s books were among the first “real” books I read. Their juvenile excesses are well documented, but I think he’s one of the best writers-maybe THE best-at conveying two things: how it feels to be an outsider, and how it feels to be afraid.
I haven’t read all of King’s books (all 3,569 of them), but I’ve read all of Conroy’s (except maybe a cookbook or two), most of them multiple times. And, now that I know about his personal life, it’s astonishing to see how little ‘fiction’ is in them. His characters leap off the page fully realized because they’re not characters, but real-life archetypes made larger than life through the power of description.
I think the first Conroy book I read was Prince Of Tides: I had to watch it for a college class (and boy, I’ll be damned if I can remember which class it was for, or what the justification was). There was a copy laying around at home, and I think my mother and sisters had read it so I dove in. I found myself hooked on the language and imagery. Reading the prose on the page was a feast for the senses, like listening to Debussy, eating red velvet cake or watching Blade Runner.
I decided I was going to keep reading and my mom gifted me (for either my birthday or Christmas) with paperback copies of The Lords Of Discipline and The Great Santini and I dove into Discipline, thinking because it was visibly longer, that it was going to be the tougher read. I was wrong. It was very quick reading and it changed my life.
The Great Santini and The Water Is Wide have universal, beloved appeal because they tell universal stories: Great Santini is the story of every father/son relationship, and The Water Is Wide is the story of every teacher.
But The Lords Of Discipline was my story. I read it at the end of a college career that, while nowhere near as physically punishing as the hero’s tenure at the Carolina Military Institute (Conroy’s Citadel in all but name), carried similar personal peril for me. I read the power struggle between the grizzled, honorable Col. “Bear” Berrineau and the school’s president, the controlling, opportunistic General Bentley Durrell with astonishment, having witnessed a similar power struggle in my own college between the chancellor and my orchestra director, and feeling caught in the middle and compelled to pick a side, much like Will McLean, the novel’s protagonist. Like Will McLean, there was no question of whom had earned my loyalty. And also like Will McLean, I’d felt lied to by people I loved and betrayed by people I trusted. I remember the electric moment when I finished Discipline…overcome, I thrust it out of my hands, like the book had taken on a life of its own. I felt McLean’s triumph, and resolved then to always be the colonel, not the general…a promise I have kept.
It’s a rainy, blustery night as I write this, and I recall a similar night, decades ago, standing sopping wet in a bar in lower downtown Denver, setting up for a gig and watching gleeful cadets celebrate on TV as Shannon Faulkner was forced to leave The Citadel. I remembered seeing Conroy state in an interview earlier in the week that she had his support, but she wasn’t going to make it because the only way to survive The Citadel was to create an impenetrable brotherhood, and she was alone. He related the story in My Losing Season: he’d promised a female cadet from a nearby institute that when a woman applied for the Citadel, she’d have his support. When the favor was called in, his words were “These damn women are going to get me killed.”
I had the privilege of seeing Conroy speak at Kepler’s Books in Palo Alto during his book tour for My Losing Season. I’d never been to such an event before and didn’t know what to expect. I showed up an hour early expecting all the seats to be taken already, but only a few other people were there. The room did fill up, and I was surprised when Pat took the lectern: I’d expected a “writer,” someone gloomy and morose and brooding, but he was great, feisty and funny like a character in his books. He was a masterful speaker, and I didn’t realize until I started reading Season that a lot of his discussion had been passages from his book, memorized and seamlessly inserted into his patter with the crowd. I was surprised at how short he was (in my family, anyone under 5’10 is ‘short’). I realized I’d taken my assumptions about his height from Jack McCall, the 6’5 hero of Beach Music. One of the perks of writing idealized versions of yourself is correcting God’s mistakes, which is why all my protagonists have very good hair.
The Q&A was fun. Most of the crowd, I’m sure, considered themselves literati and aspiring novelists, some probably straying over from nearby Stanford University. At the time, I had no question to ask, but a question I’ll regret never getting to ask him (in this life) is, “How did you know D-flat major on an organ sounds serious?” Many of the participants were clearly full of themselves, but he had an amazing way of putting people in their place without being mean or condescending. One dowager asked, “How do you describe your writing process?” and he quipped with a flourish, “I go into my study, pass out, and when I come to, a book is there!”
Another asked, “WHY did you quit teaching?” His curt response: “Because I was fired, madam. I am not allowed to teach in the state of South Carolina.” He went on to relate a story about his daughter Megan student-teaching in a neighborhood in Oakland that Pat found dangerous: he begged her to come home, saying he’d pay her whatever it took to bring her home. Her Conroy-worthy response: “Oh, is the mighty Conrack worried about me? Conrack thinks my school is dangerous? The great Conrack wishes I had a more safe occupation?”
He went on to confide-I believe it was during the discussion about his “process”-that every time he wrote a novel, he had a nervous breakdown. Minutes later, an elderly lady asked, “Are we going to have to wait ten years for the next book?” and I swear I felt like screaming, “Bitch, did you not hear him? Every time he writes a book, he has a nervous breakdown!” I almost took the microphone and said, “Sir, if it will save your life, I hope you never write another book again,” but I held my tongue, probably for the best.
His answer-and the first words that echoed in my head when I read of his passing:
“Madam, I am fifty-nine years old, and one of these books is not going to get finished.”
He finished his talk with the statement, “I’m grateful for each and every one of you, and I don’t take a single one of you for granted,” a sentiment I have stolen and echoed on occasion.
I had a nice conversation with the guy who was in front of me in line; we had the option to have one book personalized, and we discussed what we wanted Pat’s “special message” to us to be. I had no idea. My companion in line told me about getting a book signed by Gore Vidal-he’d given Mr. Vidal a long postscript to write. Gore nodded at every word, murmured assent…then simply signed “Gore Vidal” and handed it back.
We got to the head of the line, where Pat sat, flanked by a petite, worried-looking fifty-something woman in a Citadel cap. My companion was an aspiring writer (like most in the crowd probably were) and Pat spoke to him at length, even giving him his agent’s phone number. Pat closed their discussion by telling him, “You are a writer. Never forget. You are a writer.”
My turn came up. I handed Pat the two copies of My Losing Season I’d purchased. He opened one, picked up a pen, then asked, “And…what do you do for a living, sir?”
“I’m a bass player.”
My answer seemed to confuse and delight him. “Huh! No kidding?” I’m not sure if much else was said, but he asked me what I wanted for the personalized copy, and I told him to write whatever he wanted. He paused for a moment, then wrote the caption in the picture above.
I am fifty-nine years old, and one of these books is not going to get finished.
Somewhere, there’s a stack of yellow legal pads sitting alone, like a dog waiting by the door after its master has passed away. The thought makes me sad, but it’s also a moment of clarity. I’m going to be fifty years old in less than half a decade. Like most people, I will leave unfinished business, but I understand-finally-that I’m not going to live forever, and whatever I’m going to do, I need to do it now.
Good night, Mr. Conroy. I’m making your death about me because you’re part of me. Thank you and sleep well.