Showing posts with label Thomas Wolfe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thomas Wolfe. Show all posts

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Conroy’s Final Memoir?



This is the third “non- fiction” book I’ve read by Pat Conroy.  I put that in quotation marks as the line separating his novels and his memoirs of his youth at the Citadel (My Losing Season), the influence of his mother and teachers on his maturation as a writer (My Reading Life), and now, finally, this tortured history of his entire family (The Death of Santini) completes the trilogy of his autobiographical works.   His memoirs are the building blocks of his fiction.  And that is not a criticism, but a fact.  For some writers it may be more subliminal, but where else does a writer derive his/her deepest experiences other than those lived?  That is what makes moving, meaningful literature, theatre, paintings, you name the art.

I have a profound respect for Conroy’s writing ability.  It flows, whether it’s memoir or fiction.  This particular work, I would think, puts his life story to bed, or one hopes so.  As he movingly puts it at the onset …in the myth I’m sharing I know that I was born to be the recording angel of my parents’ dangerous love.  Their damaged children are past middle age now, but the residues of their fury still torture each of us…Our parents lit us up like brandy in a skillet.  They tormented us in their own flawed, wanton love of each other.  This is the telling of my parents’ love story – I shall try to write the truth of it as best I can.  I’d like to be rid of it forever, because it’s hunted me down like some foul-breathed hyena since childhood.

Throughout this angst-ridden work I hear the refrains of John Bradshaw.  I’ve met Bradshaw.  I wish Conroy had, although he has himself has gone through years and years of therapy.  Bradshaw puts his case very clearly in his seminal work The Family – the family is a system which shapes our lives and survival in a dysfunctional family involves creating a false self, playing a role – getting typecast so to speak – and it is multigenerational. 

It was not until Conroy wrote The Great Santini at the age of 30 that he first heard the phrase “dysfunctional family:”  Because I had studied the biography of Thomas Wolfe with such meticulous attention, I thought I knew all the pitfalls of and fly traps into which I could fall by writing on such an incendiary subject as my own family.  When I began to write the book, I had never heard the phrase “dysfunctional family.”  Since the book came out, that phrase has traveled with me as though a wood tick has attached itself to my armpit forever…My portrait of my father was so venomous and unforgiving that I had to pull back from the outraged narrative voice and eventually decide to put the book into third person. But even then, the words flowed like molten steel instead of language.

In parts of this blog I’ve revealed some of my own family sicknesses, a rageaholic mother and a passive father, sort of the opposite of Conroy but we share some of the same burdens.  And as the oldest in the family of many siblings, Conroy bears the brunt and he is trying to excise those demons in his memoirs and fiction.

It was not until after he had a physical confrontation with his father physically that the impact of multigenerational family sickness dawned on him.  His father had left Conroy’s house drunk after being plummeted by his son.  It suddenly dawned on Conroy that his father had no business driving a car in that condition and ran down the street to find the car – which he did with his father passed out in the driver’s seat. He studied his father’s face. I realized I would always be serving a life sentence without parole because of the unpardonable cruelty of this one man. Now on this night, my father had proffered his final gift to me – because I had kicked him across the lawn and beat him with my fists, I sat studying him at my leisure, deep in thought on the first night I ever thought of myself earning my natural birthright as a violent man.  I was devastated.  All during my childhood, I had sworn that I would never be a think like him, and here before me, drunken and beaten, was living proof that I was the spitting image of Don Conroy.

As Tolstoy posited “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I’ve heard of such families (the happy ones), although I’ve rarely met one without some secret lurking.  I think a more benign way of putting it is that some families get along better than others, but all families have their crucibles to bear.  I like Conroy’s way of putting it:  I don’t believe in happy families.  A family is too frail a vessel to contain the risks of all the warring impulses expressed when such a group meets on common ground.  If a family gathers in harmony for a reunion, everyone in attendance will know the entryways and exits have been mined with improvised explosive devices.  The crimes of a father or the carelessness of a mother can defile the taste of oyster dressing and giblet gravy on the brightest Thanksgiving Day….The pretense of being festive at these events is both crushing and debilitating to me…My parents taught me many things, but they never taught me a thing about faking joy…The happy family is one of the treasured romances of the American epic, something akin to the opening of the West.  Holidays brought out the worst in my own family, hopes ridding high, with no way of scaling those walls of expectations.

Much of the book is devoted to the ironic reconciliation with his father.  I say “ironic” as it was through the publication (and ultimately the making of the movie) of The Great Santini, the main character, "Bull" Meecham being based on his father, that a reconciliation becomes possible.  It was not an attractive portrait, so much based on Don Conroy’s incendiary persona.  Upon publication -- as in the case of Conroy’s literary hero Thomas Wolfe when his autobiographical Look Homeward Angel was published -- there was an upheaval in the family.  But eventually Don Conroy became proud to be known as the “Great Santini,” talking down the unflattering parts as being due to his son’s “over imagination” and playing up the heroic parts.  To Pat Conroy’s credit he accepted this part of the reconciliatory bargain and even allowed his father to participate in book signings, his father becoming sort of a “wingman” to Pat for the rest of his life on those occasions. 

The deaths of his mother (who had divorced his father years earlier) and then the Great Santini himself are movingly described by Conroy.  The affect the family dynamics had on the siblings and particularly his estrangement from his sister Carol Ann (“her talismanic powers over me extended into the deepest realms of self”) and the suicide of his youngest brother (“Tom was born to hurt”) are detailed.  His beautiful eulogy to his father is appended at the end of the book.  

Towards the end of his father’s life, we began a year of submitting to Dad’s whims as he made a final tour of the most significant places in his life.  He planned visits to every person he’d ever considered a friend, paying special attention to my daughters, who had worshiped him ever since they had learned to talk…A hundred new moons would appear in my horizon whenever my daughters had a child.  Because of fate, love was a million-footed thing, and so was hatred.  My father was behind the wheel of his car, urging it down the peripheries of blue highways, and he carried what was killing him as an honored guest in his liver.  He connected himself to Chicago, to Atlanta, and the surprising realm of Beaufort, where his children had planted their own flags of belonging and home.

Finally the end of this cathartic work, Conroy saying “I will not write about you again” to his now dead parents, He also has found peace in his marriage to Cassandra King, a novelist as well.  And they have settled in the low country of Beaufort, a place he loves, a place Conroy can call home in spite of being an army brat and having moved all over God’s creation. I hope for no more non-fiction from Conroy as he promises.  Yes, any future novel he may write may be steeped in the roots of his own life, but that is how it should be.  The book’s dedication is lovingly made to his all his brothers and sisters, a sure sign of healing.

It’s all out there now, other than the parts which, for whatever reasons, he has chosen to keep private.  He again makes reference to his estranged daughter Susannah (he dedicated My Reading Life to her), this time in the Acknowledgments, “…the door is always open and so is my heart.”  But that obviously painful story essentially remains untold.  He is such a powerful, lyrical writer, and now that his memoirs have been put to bed, perhaps he’ll feel freer in future fiction. 

Bob Next to Wolfe’s Shoes
Thomas Wolfe is Conroy’s spiritual literary mentor, both southerners, poetic writers, embracing family history as fiction.  My review of My Reading Life includes a description of a chapter from that book entitled "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe" as well as a number of photographs of Wolfe’s “Old Kentucky Home” in Asheville, NC.  

 We have visited that home, ultimately a boarding house managed by Wolfe’s mother, now a museum, a few times and felt moved and privileged.  I’m sure Conroy felt the same way when he has been there.  And he has the right stuff to fill Wolfe’s enormous shoes, which were bronzed and are part of the sidewalk outside the “Old Kentucky Home.” 

I might also note that I read the hardcover edition of The Death of Santini, beautifully produced by the Nan A. Talese imprint of Doubleday, printed on a cream shade deckle edge paper, and set in the very popular, easy to read Caslon typeface.  It’s hard (for me) to imagine reading this on a Kindle.  Holding the book itself when reading such a moving memoir is a more tactile, spiritual experience.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Jonathan Tropper

We are hunkered down in a hotel awaiting Hurricane Irene, our boat secured to the best of our ability. So we wait, with our flashlights (as power will inevitably be lost) and enough bread, and peanut butter and jelly to outlast the storm. The storm surge will be the key to our boat’s survival, a sickening feeling having to wait out the next two days and hoping we can return to find minimal damage when the storm finally passes. Meanwhile, it is time to complete an entry concerning Jonathan Tropper which I had started to write before Irene dictated the turmoil of preparing for the storm.

I’m becoming a Jonathan Tropper admirer, a clever and talented writer, with a unique voice, who may deserve to join the company of some of my favorite contemporary American novelists, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Pat Conroy, and Jonathan Franzen, Ever since John Updike died and as Philip Roth ages, I worry about their understudies, who might fill the shoes of authors dedicated to the craft of writing and the chronicling of American life and The Dream.

I had just finished Russell Bank’s The Reserve, a beautifully written novel but humorless and needed a “pick me up” so I returned to Tropper, having liked his Everything Changes, and was curious whether one of his earlier ones would measure up. I chose The Book of Joe with some hesitancy as it seemed to have all its cultural references to the 1980s, where part of the novel is set, the main characters being in high school and juxtaposed to the same ones today. This is my younger son’s generation, not mine. I’m closer to Updike and Roth’s age, no doubt one of the reasons their writing so resonates with me.

But Tropper deals with such universal truths they transcend generational provincialism, certainly the mark of a good writer. My high school years of the 1950s had the same raw pulsating teenage angst, sexual urgency, and social vulnerability, the very ones portrayed by Tropper at Bush Falls High, their Cougar basketball players revered, and everyone else in a subordinate role. Teenagers can be the most sadistic humans on the face of the earth, something Tropper well understands.

Events concerning my 50th high school reunion brought home the fact that the caste system had hardly changed. It was amazing to me that the long bridge of 50 years hardly mattered. It was back to the clickish high school years as if no time had passed at all.

And Tropper poignantly captures this feeling in The Book of Joe, using Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel experience as a very loose outline. Wolfe’s novel outraged the residents of Asheville and had Wolfe returned (actually, there is a fictionalized version of his return written by Asheville native and playwright Sandra Mason which we saw several years ago in Asheville), he, too, would have been vilified as is Tropper’s Joe Goffman who leaves the small fictional town of Bush Falls, CT, somewhere north of New Haven. He writes a novel about the town and it becomes a sensational best-seller, thanks in part to his agent. He tells all in thinly veiled fiction, even his most private sexual fantasies concerning his best friend’s mother. He finally returns 17 years later as his father has had a stroke and he now has to confront his family and former friends and high school hell raisers, the love of his life, and even the mother about whom he had fantasized.

Tropper writes terrifically believable dialogue and it is not surprising that he is also a screenwriter and a couple of his novels are in the process of being adapted for the screen. The Book of Joe is a fast read, poignantly tragicomic. Sometimes his writing reminds me of Joseph Heller’s special gift for ironic humor.

I was surprised by how engaged I was in the world of this thirty-something protagonist, a world more inhabited by my sons, but universal truths never change.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Conroy's Reading Life

Our good friend Edie gave me My Reading Life by Pat Conroy when I recently entered the hospital, which was supposed to be for a more routine visit than it turned out to be. She knows I love good writing, and she thinks of me as a writer as well. It was a very thoughtful gift. Yes, I write, and I enjoy it, but to be a real writer means to forsake just about everything and dedicate yourself to the craft. It also helps to have an abundance of talent, an omniscient eye and an encyclopedic memory.

I cannot think of any great writer who is not obsessive compulsive about writing. In many ways, I wish I could roll back time and make that choice, but it would have been to the detriment of a publishing career I loved and other avocations such as the piano, studying the machinations of economic markets, politics, and a bunch of other things. Although I started Conroy's work in the hospital, I had difficulty concentrating on it or anything else after undergoing such major surgery. My recovery left me unable to do much but change channels watching awful TV which I can only describe as crap, and if that is emblematic of where American "culture" has migrated, there is no hope for our society.

Once I returned home, I picked up the book again. Conroy achingly cries out in poetic terms for an understanding as to why he writes, why he found refuge as a child in literature, first as a means of connecting with his mother (no, worshiping her) and as a means of escaping his father. I have a particular empathy for literature as a means to understand family, as I wrote in an earlier piece: "What draws me to these writers is families, or more specifically, dysfunctional families. Strong mothers or weak fathers or weak mothers and strong fathers with borderline “crazy” behavior, dark humor and the unpredictable maturation of children from those families. Of course if art mirrors life, it may be that “dysfunctional” is merely normalcy in today’s world."

It was heartbreaking, though, to read Conroy's dedication page. My Reading Life begins with: "This book is dedicated to my lost daughter, Susannah Ansley Conroy. Know this: I love you with my heart and always will. Your return to my life would be one of the happiest moments I could imagine."

So, as in my family, succeeding generations are affected by the tribulations fostered by previous generations. I naturally tried to discover more, and found his comments about the dedication page in an NPR review: Apparently he has been estranged from his daughter since divorcing her mother in 1995: "She has a perfect right not to see me. She's 28 now. But I thought this [dedication] was going to be a last cry of the heart. I would at least try to get her attention and see if I could get her to come back. It has been one of the most soul-killing things to ever happen to me." [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Maybe his daughter will reconnect with her father if she has the opportunity to read this book and understand the undertow of Conroy's maturation as a man and as a writer. He covers a wide range of influences on his writing, first and foremost his mother, who became immersed in Gone With the Wind, continuously reading passages from the novel to her son, beginning when he was five years old. "I owe a personal debt to this novel that I find almost beyond reckoning. I became a novelist because of Gone with the Wind, or more precisely, my mother raised me up to be a "Southern" novelist, with a strong emphasis on the word "Southern," because Gone with the Wind set my mother's imagination ablaze when she was a young girl in Atlanta, and it was the one fire of her bruised, fragmented youth that never went out....It was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world."

Then there were the teachers, in particular Gene Norris's English class, and the "anti-teachers" in particular his father, Donald Conroy, the Marine who beat his family. Conroy bore much of this. "From an early age, I knew I didn't want to be anything like the man he was....I was on a lifelong search for the different kind of man. I wanted to attach my own moon of solitude to the strong attraction of a good man's gravitational pull." Gene Norris was that man and he became a lifelong friend and mentor to Conroy and introduced Conroy to a wide range of classic literature.

Then there were people in his life who could have been negative influences, the librarian, Miss Hunter, at Beaufort High School, Cliff Grabart, the proprietor of the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, and the cantankerous, but lover of literature, a book representative, Norman Berg, who I met on several occasions at book conventions. Conroy even went out on sales calls with Berg. That was the foundation of the publishing business then.

From each of these people Conroy took away something and bonded with them in his own way. In fact, Conroy was sponge-like in his dealings with people and the literature he read, recording everything, the eyes and ears of a writer on duty at all times. This is what separates mediocre writers from great ones.

He did the ex-pat "thing" in Paris in the late 1970s. "Parisians... relish the xenophobic sport of stereotyping and love to offer an infinite variety of theories on the nature of Americans. To them, we as a people are shallow, criminally naive, reactionary, decadent, over-the-hill, uncultured, uneducable, and friendly to a fault....Whenever Parisians heard my execrable attempts at French, they would cover their ears with their hands and moan over the violation and butchery of their sweet tongue." My own visits to France taught me a similar lesson, my high school French had to be left behind and I sometimes pretended to be Canadian. But maybe the French are on to something, given my captivity by the mindless TV programming during my hospital stay.

Conroy was finishing The Lords of Discipline in Paris, staying at a hotel where he encountered a wide range of travelers, including other artists. As my son is an inveterate traveler, I was fascinated by Conroy's exquisite explanation as to what it is to be an ex-pat, meeting other people on similar journeys: "Because we were strangers who would know one another on this planet for a very short time, we could trade those essential secrets of our lives that defined us in absolute terms. Voyagers can remove the masks and those sinuous, intricate disguises we wear at home in the dangerous equilibrium of our common lives. The men and women I met at the Grand Hotel des Balcons traveled to change themselves, to trust their bright impulse with the hope they would receive the gift of the sublime, life-changing encounter somewhere on the road. There is no voyage without a spiritual, even religious impulse. Each of us had met by accident, our lives touched briefly, fragilely -- then we continued on our own private journeys, and those intense encounters left a fragrant pollen on the sills and eaves of memory."

But to this point, My Reading Life is merely a warm up for what is the main event and influence on Conroy's writing and he appropriately entitles the chapter "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe."
It was Gene Norris who gave him Wolfe's classic Look Homeward, Angel in 1961 as a Christmas present. "The book's impact on me was visceral that I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life....The beauty of the language, shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, brought me to my knees with pleasure....I was under the illusion that Thomas Wolfe had written his book solely because he knew that I would one day read it, that a boy in South Carolina would enter his house of art with his arms wide open, ready and waiting for everything that Thomas Wolfe could throw at him."

I felt the same awe when I read the novel in college, probably at about the same time as Conroy. Never before had I felt that way when reading fiction. The only way to describe his writing is as being concurrently prodigious and poetic, an uncommon combination. And the novel was even larger before publication and luckily for Wolfe his editor was none other than the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's who also was Ernest Hemingway's and F. Scott Fitzgerald's. Wolfe was in good company.

The publication of Look Homeward, Angel, had, at its heart, detailed autobiographical elements, the same sort of autobiographical elements in which Conroy's own The Great Santini is grounded. Wolfe's work caused an uproar in his hometown, beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. For a while he was banished from the town, but he did return later to write You Can't Go Home Again.

Conroy has made the pilgrimage to Asheville, first with his teacher, Gene Morris, to visit Wolfe's "Old Kentucky Home," the boarding house maintained by Wolfe's mother. Conroy rocked on the chairs where the boarders gathered on the porch. He toured the home which has been so lovingly restored. I wonder whether Conroy has seen the wonderful play about Wolfe's return to Asheville, Return of an Angel which we were lucky enough to experience during one of our visits to Asheville. It brought Wolfe's return to Asheville alive.

We have been to the Wolfe home in Asheville twice and came away with the same feeling of time having been stopped during those years, before Wolfe's untimely death at the age of only 37. Imagine the great works he would have written if he had lived. As Conroy says, "I think the novels of his fifties and sixties would have been masterpieces. Time itself is a shaping, transfiguring force in any writer's life. Wolfe's best novels sleep in secret on a hillside in Asheville -- beside him forever, or at least, this is what I believe." I agree, Pat, and thank you for reminding me of Wolfe's passion, an invitation to reread his work.

Conroy's concluding chapter, "Why I Write" is probably one of the best I've ever read on the subject, setting the serious writer apart from the potboilers that weigh down today's best seller lists. "Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself...Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear."

Also in that chapter, he returns to the overarching theme of literature and family, the role of literature explaining who we are and where we came from: "I've always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable. but I soon discovered that I've been writing voluptuous hymns to that boy my whole life, because somewhere along the line -- in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that's a home place for the beaten child -- I fell in love with that kid." And I too fell in love, as much with Conroy's nonfiction as his novels, particularly with My Reading Life, as well as My Losing Season. Such truthfulness and beautiful writing. One can only hope his honesty will lead to a reconciliation with his daughter. It would be just.

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