The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son is no sweet tale of tossing baseballs in the dusky backyard, and it’s more likely to make your face flush cardinal red right off the bat than it is to warm your heart. “[Don Conroy] fought well and honorably in three wars and at one time was one of the most highly decorated Marine aviators in the corps. He was also meaner than a shit-house rat, and I remember hating him even when I was in diapers,” Pat Conroy writes of his father, nicknamed the Great Santini for the somersaults he made in the sky.
Don also excelled at upending his family. He beat his wife, Peg, and he beat his kids, too. He never said “I love you.” He drank too much and made scenes. But for what it’s worth, his eldest son was able to take the checkered childhood his father provided and turn it into premier American literature—The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides—that became Oscar-nominated films. (“‘I hear you made me a mean shrimper in this one,’” Don said of the latter.)
Conroy never hid the fact that his most famous books were novelized accounts of real-life cruelties endured. “I’ve tried to tell the truth in my books,” says Conroy. “When I first started writing The Great Santini, my editor wouldn’t let me put some of the violent scenes in the book because no one would believe that was true...I’ve told the truth about my family in The Death of Santini, and I hope it’s the last I’ll have to write about the subject.”
While both books offer up hard truths, the The Death of Santini is the non-fictive version. Seven children were born to the itinerant Irish-Catholic Chicagoan and mother of Appalachian snake-handling stock. They moved between Southern military bases and lived poor but not ignorant. Conroy fondly remembers his mother reading a library copy of Gone with the Wind to him and sister Carol Ann. “I still hear her voice when I write. She had that little Southern accent that was lovely to me, and what she did with that book is she associated every character in it with a member of our family....It was a very early lesson: the relationship between art and life,” he says.
The book chronicles Conroy’s life from early childhood, through a Citadel education following in his father’s footsteps (but not his jet exhaust, on account of poor eyesight), settling in South Carolina, the Civil Rights movement, marriages, book publications, movie adaptations, et al; the
death of Conroy’s mother Peg and suicide of his brother Tom; clear through to the final days of Santini. Conroy spares no dark detail. “The book was painful to write. The part about my brother’s suicide was almost impossible to write. I have a brother and sister who can’t even talk about it to this day,” he says. “But there is a great strength that has kept my family somehow together. There are these silent ways families have of letting each other know that we’re still on board, still caring for each other in some way, and whatever the flaws of my parents, they managed to impart this thing we carry with us, and we hope to give it to our children.”
Though their darkness is deep, there’s plenty of that famous Irish deprecative wit in the genes to help pull the family through—as when the funeral home puts the name of the wrong brother on the prayer cards. (“ ‘Sorry you’re dead, Tim,’ Jim said. ‘But it had to happen someday,’ ” Conroy writes.)
Don goes out fighting, without apologies or endearments, gone but not forgotten by his family, as well as readers around the world—not forgiven by the former, exactly, but perhaps appreciated in death for the complicated character he proved to be. “Don Conroy was the best uncle I ever saw, the best brother, the best grandfather, the best friend—and my God, what a father. After my mother divorced him and The Great Santini was published, Don Conroy had the best second act I ever saw,” writes Conroy in the eulogy.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.