The Death of Santini


review Anita Paddock

By Pat Conroy
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday: $28.95

I became a fan of Pat Conroy when I saw the movie, Conrack, starring Jon Voight, back in the 1970s. The movie was based on Conroy’s book, The River is Wide, which was the true story of the young idealistic Pat Conroy who taught school on Daufuskie Island off the coast of South Carolina. His sixteen students were black and had never been off the island. His unorthodox way of teaching (a Halloween trick-or-treat trip to Beaufort, the nearest town) got him fired from the job, and with no money coming in to support his wife and two children, he sat down in a frenzy and wrote the book that became the movie.

In The Death of Santini, Pat Conroy examines his life with his father. He was the oldest of seven children born to an Irish Catholic Marine fighter pilot from Chicago and his beautiful Southern wife. His father was brutal, often beating his wife and children. They lived a nomad life, frequently moving from one base to another, always with a new baby in tow. Pat was the oldest, and thus suffered the longest, but his siblings lived through the same hell, with the youngest jumping off a fourteen-story building.

In his earlier novel, The Great Santini, (which was the moniker given to the fighter pilot because of his prowess in the air), Conroy modeled the main character after his troubled father. It also became a movie with Robert DuVall and Blythe Danner and was filmed in Conroy’s hometown of Beaufort. Even though the book aired the family’s dirty laundry, his father took great pride in being heralded as the Great Santini; in fact, he insisted on signing books at many of his son’s autograph parties.

Conroy’s parents divorced when his two younger brothers were still in high school. His mother, who, unlike her husband, encouraged her son’s passion for literature, remarried. But the Conroy children could not escape their father, who insisted on being a presence in their life.

He also writes about his father’s relatives, who were hard drinking and rough talking. It isn’t hard to see how his father, The Great Santini, came to be. Conroy’s grandparents made fun of his father, of his Southern wife and their brood of kids, and Conroy witnessed it all. But as the author’s fame grew, they were eager to capitalize on their kinship.

I loved this book and cringed while reading about the horrors the Conroy children endured. They all had contentious relationships with their father, but they never abandoned him, looking after him through various illnesses and never leaving him alone as he lay dying.

Other Conroy novels such as The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides are also based on his family, but in The Death of Santini Pat Conroy says he’s expunged all the demons from his life with his father and will not write about him or his family again. But I’m not betting that he can keep that promise.

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