Military brats, it’s said, grow up with no roots but plenty of tendrils, loosely attached to both places and people, friendly and self-assured but always with the sure knowledge that no attachment is permanent: your next-door neighbor might be dead in combat in a week, or the family may be shipped out to a new post overnight.
No writer understood this better than Pat Conroy, the poet laureate of military families, the dependents who wait on the home front while The Mission is being waged abroad.
Sometimes, Conroy also understood well, The Mission comes home, and when it does bad things ensue. Thus his first novel, The Great Santini, a roman à clef published in 1976 that depicted the uneasy relations between a Marine Corps aviator and his teenage son in the awakening years of the 1960s. That period tore apart military families as much as it did civilian society, as young men and women began to question why their fathers were being sent in harm’s way—and why they, those young people, might then want to choose some other path for themselves rather than the tradition of following in their father’s footsteps.
Readers who wondered at The Great Santini and its blustery, by-the-book father, who does not entertain such questions, and who seemingly delights in psychologically abusing his children, would later be dismayed to discover that Conroy’s own father was, if anything, even worse than the title character. But, once published, Santini set Conroy on his course as a writer of fictions that were resolutely commercial—and, it seemed, written as if destined for the screen.
And so they were. Even before Santini, Conroy had written an autobiographical work about life as a student teacher in a remote South Carolina sea island community of poor African Americans; it was quickly made into the film Conrack (1974), with Jon Voight in the title role. The Great Santini followed in 1979, with Robert Duvall as the martinet father. Then came The Lords of Discipline, with then-young actors Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, and Judge Reinhold in an unflattering depiction of life in military school. The Prince of Tides, released in 1991, five years after Conroy’s original novel, put Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte into an unlikely romance, while Beach Music, published in 1995, has reportedly been optioned several times in the years since.
All that filmic success, coupled with strong sales of many (though not all) of his books, has meant that Pat Conroy was not much taken seriously as a writer by critics and the university set. But, commercial appeal notwithstanding, Conroy, very much like Stephen King and Peter Straub, to name two other underappreciated novelists, was an eminently serious and literary writer. His 2010 memoir My Reading Life may have contained a few unnecessary digs at the establishment literati—Adrienne Rich, for one—but Conroy well understood another central fact of military life: you always meet those who wronged you as they come down while you go up, and vice versa, and that’s the time to get in your licks. In any event, he wrote in that book, “My great fear of being attacked or trivialized by my contemporaries made me concentrate on what I was trying to do as a writer.” Critical reception or no, he made good on that effort.
Improbably, late in life, Pat Conroy called The Great Santini “a love letter” to his father. It’s worth looking at that book, still his most famous, in that light as we reflect on the author’s life. Pat Conroy died on Friday, March 4 of pancreatic cancer. He was 70.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing writer.