The Victim. The Fighter. The Feminist. The Lover. The Memory.
Who is this charming, warm, funny man, and what have you done with Pat Conroy? From the outside looking into Pat Conroy’s world through his books, I expected to meet with a wintry, curmudgeonly figure, gnarled and twisted by the well-documented abuses of his Irish Marine fighter pilot father, the concocted identity of his beloved Southern mother, the suicide of a younger brother, the psycho-drama of his sister Carol’s life, the suicidal tendencies of his siblings and himself, and his divorces.
I found neither the curmudgeon nor the dramatist, but a man who—after making me cry every fourth page of The Death of Santini—made me howl with laughter. His sense of humor is born of an emotional darkness, which he has painstakingly mined in his books, starting with The Great Santini. I found in Conroy what Winston Churchill found in his dealings with Russia; “a riddle inside a mystery wrapped inside an enigma,” and a delightful one at that.
On our second interview, we met at the Griffin Market in Beaufort, a superb Italian restaurant, owned and operated by Laura and Riccardo Bonino for his ritual weekly Italian lunch, which may be homage to the years he spent in Rome writing The Prince of Tides. Conroy also invited our photographer, Cedric Smith, to join us.
Here we were, an aspiring white Irish American lady novelist, a highly lauded American writer with pale Irish skin, and a celebrated black painter-turned-photographer, seated before a round table that was full of Italian Cheeses, Wild Boar Sausage, Italian Seafood Salad with Squid and Octopus, Figs and Gorgonzola, and Watermelon, Orange and Basil Salad. Conroy went for the sausage, I went for the figs and cheese, and Cedric refrained from all, citing his inability to mix too many flavors, looking at the squid as though it was alive.
This was hardly an elliptical conversation, but one more fitting of Thomas Wolfe than of Ernest Hemingway. I recalled a passage from My Reading Life about his mentor Gene Norris who was so concerned about the effects of Wolfe’s florid prose on Conroy after he read Look Homeward Angel that he gave him a copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. That didn’t work out so well. Conroy stated about Hemingway, “His sentences were like ice to me.” Hear, hear!
Some criticize Conroy for playing the victim in his works. Others say he relies too much on memory; some fault him for always being in fights; some say he is doomed at love. Arguably, however, his victims may be more forthright than most men are and his books can, in many ways, all be considered love stories. His stories are about the loss of love, the lack of love, and the basic human need to be loved.
To meet more of the famed Pat Conroy, read the full interview in the February/March issue of South.