Showing posts with label Pat Conroy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pat Conroy. Show all posts

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Pat Conroy and My Own Reading Life

The passing of Pat Conroy is yet another loss in my reading life.  He touched a lyrical nerve in that life, and the magnetism of his dysfunctional family years brought me into his writings.  Although a southerner, he was a kindred spirit.  Even his college basketball days chronicled in his My Losing Season resonated on a personal basis. He was a point guard in college, one of my dreams when I was much younger, although unrealized.

He died of pancreatic cancer.  The worst kind I can think of, my own father having wasted away from the same. And now a dear friend of mine, after successful Whipple surgery five years ago, fighting the unrelenting return of that dreaded disease.

One by one, the writers I grew up with, Richard Yates, John Cheever, John Updike, and now Pat Conroy, passing.  There are other writers taking their place.  Literature is alive and well even in this 140 character world, thanks to luminaries such as Conroy.

In his very personal memoir, My Reading Life, the dedication cried out for being reunited with his estranged daughter: 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.

My entry on that book, written soon after I emerged from the hospital following complicated open heart surgery, also noted that dedication and expressed my hope that it might lead to reconciliation.  I wonder whether it happened, as much for her sake as her father’s.

Goodbye Pat Conroy.  You brought beautiful fiction into my world, a Phoenix rising from the ashes of a sorrowful childhood.

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.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Russo's Elsewhere

Richard Russo's Elsewhere is a painfully honest memoir.  It is lovingly detailed.  It appears that we have some shared family history, his novels focusing on many similar issues particularly his relationship with his mother, the theme of Elsewhere.  He is among the many contemporary American writers I admire most, such as John Updike, Pat Conroy, Anne Tyler, Anita Shrive, John Irving, Richard Yates, Richard Ford, Russell Banks, Philip Roth, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver (among others, I'm sure I've left someone out). They speak directly to me.  And somewhere in this blog, I've connected these writers to many of my own family issues.

But of all of them, Russo's writings seem to come closest to my own family angst (see my entry on his novel, That Old Cape Magic), and Elsewhere hits my funny bone as well and reveals the roots of his fictional world. Russo had almost a symbiotic relationship with his mother, but it was an approach-avoidance issue, a mother who on the one hand he tried to keep at whatever distance he could (without much success), for the sake of his individuality and for the sake of his family, but, on the other, obligingly (and lovingly), took responsibility for, particularly as she aged. 

When Russo was a young child, his mother worked for GE in Schenectady, living with Russo's grandparents in Gloversville and commuting (after divorcing her ne'er-do-well husband - the kind portrayed in Russo's Nobody's Fool and The Risk Pool), asserting her independence by paying her parents rent.  During WW II, when my father was away at the front, my own mother worked for Atlantic Burners (a local heating oil distribution company) in Queens, NY as a secretary/administrative assistant and for years I would hear about how much she missed being a professional woman.  We too lived with her parents at the time, with my primary care being passed onto my grandmother and great-grandmother, who lived with us as well.
Russo details the decline of the leather business, it's impact on his home town, Gloversville, and his family, a story eerily close to Philip Roth's family's leather business, and the decline of Newark, as told in his novel American Pastoral, perhaps one of the best novels of the late 20th century.  These were generations of families in the same business, as mine was in the photography business for more than 100 years, and, that kind of business too changed to such an extent that it eventually just faded away.

I was amused by Russo's statement My mother did love mirrors, often practicing in front of them.  My mother liked to pose and preen in front of mirrors, painstakingly putting on her make-up. In fact, she was very caught up in her appearance and good looks.  She knew she attracted men, something that infuriated my father at times. 
But from there, Russo's relationship with his mother, and me with mine, diverge greatly, mostly because, unlike Russo's parents, my parents stayed married (when they should have been divorced) and I was not an only child.  There was my sister in the mix, and that changed the dynamics.  During my troubled teenage years, I made it a point of being out of the house as much as possible as my parents waged war.  And after college I moved further away and by the time of my second marriage, I was hardly speaking to my mother (or vise versa), not that I'm particularly proud of that period, but I had to protect my wife and kids.  She was a rageaholic, perpetually assigning blame for her unhappiness to others. She also was a borderline alcoholic which only fed the flames. Nonetheless, we had some kind of reconciliation before her death, for which I am grateful. 

In later years, my mother turned to art and she was an accomplished painter of still life, portraits, mostly working in oils.  I'll give her credit for seeking a creative outlet, and she was a good artist but sadly, except for this pencil sketch she did of me (a very idealized version of what I looked like at about 12), I have only one of her oil paintings.

But getting back to Elsewhere, Russo had the devotion of a saint toward his mother, who had declared, basically that it was he and she against the world, making him promise (as a child) to always look out for one another, almost as if he were her spouse, not her son.  Even in later years, after Russo had married (his wife, Barbara, another saint as well) and had daughters of his own, she reminded him of their "pledge" to one another:

One of my mother's most cherished convictions was that back on Helwig Street - she and I had pledged an oath, each to the other. She and I would stand together against whatever configuration the world's opposition took-her parents, my father, Gloversville, monetary setbacks. Now, forty-some years later, I was a grown man with a wife and kids, but this original bond, she believed, was still in force. However fond she was of Barbara, however much she loved her granddaughters, none of that altered our original contract, which to her way of thinking made us indivisible. She'd never really considered us two separate people but rather one entity, oddly cleaved by time and gender, like fraternal twins somehow born twenty-five years apart, destined in some strange way to share a common destiny.

His dissection of her motives, self defense mechanisms, lack of friendships, dependency on him demonstrates that great writers are great psychologists.  Later he learns that his father's offhand foreboding that "she's crazy" had some grounding in that she was OCD
Still, his mother taught him to persevere (although never understanding why he would want to be a writer with his fine academic credentials that would assuredly lead to a tenured, secure position).  He even chose lower paying positions. teaching less, to pursue his writing objectives, not succeeding at first, sort of like when I decided to go into publishing rather than into a more lucrative insurance underwriting position (at the time), as well as choosing not to go into my father's business...

Long after she returned to Gloversville from Tucson, I began a decade-long academic nomadship during which I jumped from job to job, trying to teach and be a writer at the same time. For a while, after our daughters came along, we were even poorer than we'd been as graduate students. And I was a bad boy. Caring not a whit about tenure and promotion, thumbed my nose at the advice of department chairs about what I needed to do to succeed in the university. I left jobs for other jobs that paid less but offered more time out of the classroom, In the summer, when many of my colleagues taught extra classes, I wrote stories and spent money we didn't have on postage to submit them to magazines. I wrote manically, obsessively, but also, for a time, not very well. I wrote about crime and cities and women and other things I knew very little about in a language very different from my own natural voice, which explained why the editors weren't much interested.

Later in life Russo finds that voice, and a discipline, and has an epiphany one day as he is looking at the books and periodical articles he had published -- that his writing was the result of an obsessive personality, like his mother's ...

The biggest difference between my mother and me, I now saw clearly, had less to do with either nature or nurture than with blind dumb luck, the third and often lethal rail of human destiny. My next obsession might well have been a woman, or a narcotic, a bottle of tequila. Instead I'd stumbled on storytelling and become infected. Halfway through my doctoral dissertation, I'd nearly quit so I could write full-time. Not because I imagined I was particularly gifted or that one day I'd be able to earn a living. I simply had to. It was the game room and the dog track all over again. An unreasoning fit of must. That, no doubt, was what my mother had recognized and abhorred, what had caused her to remind me about my responsibilities as a husband and father.

It didn't take long for me to learn that novel writing was a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths, such as they were. Because - and don't let anybody tell you different - novel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn't work, trying something else. Welcoming clutter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won't find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out Knowing that when you've finally settled everything that can be, you'll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, without ever intending to, I'd discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness - character traits that had dogged both my parents, causing them no end of difficulty - to my advantage. The same qualities that over a lifetime had contracted my mother's world had somehow expanded mine. How and by what mechanism? Dumb luck? Grace? I honestly have no idea. Call it whatever you want - except virtue.

It's a writer's astute introspective view of what writing is all about.  And how one's upbringing and genes ebb and flow in his fiction.

His mother passed on a love of reading, and as Russo says, you can't be a writer without first being a reader.  My own childhood was spent bereft of books and I can't remember my parents reading other than the occasional potboiler, Time and Life magazines, and my father's subscription to the Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  Essentially, I grew up without books, except, of course, at school, and I think that did damage to me as a writer, in spite of writing this blog, and making half assed attempts at short stories and poetry. I rarely read anything on my own other than Jules Verne.

On the other hand, my father instilled a work ethic in me and my mother taught me typing and encouraged my attempts at music (except for the guitar which she condemned).  I still consider typing 70 WPM (unusual for a young man in the 1960s) to be the basis for a successful career, as silly as that might seem.  That is how I got my job in publishing.  And the piano has blossomed into something central in my retirement, a place where I can go to express myself and be at peace with the world. 

Russo was looking at his mother's book collection during one of her many, many moves, all of which Russo was left the responsibility for engineering, commenting...

She claimed to love anything about Ireland or England or Spain, but in fact she needed books in those settings to be warm and comfy, more like Maeve Binchy than William Trevor. Not surprisingly, given that she'd felt trapped most of her life, she loved books about time travel, but only if the places the characters traveled to were ones she was  interested in. She had exactly no interest in the future or in any past that didn't involve romantic adventure.

Still, illuminating though literary taste can be, the more I thought about it, neither my mother's library nor my own meant quite what I wanted it to. If my books were more serious and literary than hers, that was due more to nurture than nature.  If I didn't read much escapist fiction, it was because I lived a blessed life from which I neither needed nor desired to escape.  I wasn't a superior person, just an educated one, and for that in a large measure I had my mother to thank. Maybe she'd tried to talk me out of becoming a writer, but she was more responsible than
anyone for my being one. Back when we lived on Helwig Street, at the end of her long workdays at GE, after making her scant supper and cleaning up, after doing the laundry (without benefit of a washing machine) and ironing, after making sure I was set for school the next day, she might've collapsed in front of the television, but she didn't. She read. Every night. Her taste, unformed as mine would later be by a score of literature professors, was equally dogmatic; she read her Daphne du Mauriers and Mary Stewarts until their covers fell off and had to be replaced. It was from my mother that I learned reading was not a duty but a reward, and from her that I intuited a vital truth: most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt. You can't make a writer without first making a reader, and that's what my mother made me

I can't help but think of Pat Conroy's My Reading Life which is also a memoir, and in which his mother plays a central role in Conroy's love of reading and then writing.  There are so many similarities, including their mothers' shared love of the same novel, Gone With the Wind.

I had a dream after I had read Elsewhere, during the early morning hours when I can at least remember a snippet of what I dream.  I was sitting with Richard Russo's son (he has only daughters), and I mentioned to him that I would like to meet his father, something I didn't feel daunted about (as I felt the one time I might have had the opportunity to meet John Updike at a PEN conference, but did not have the courage or the opportunity, I can no longer remember).  That little boy I was talking to in the dream was obviously me, and as I talked to him, I gradually woke up with a sense of sadness overcoming me, for the lost opportunity, wanting to ask my mother one last question: Why, Mom?    

But Russo's childhood was far from "ideal" as well (is there such a childhood?), such a burden -- the "pledge" his mother made him take as a child.  And yet, he is one of our finest storytellers today.  Richard Russo, thank you for sharing your story with us, for your honesty, and for being the writer you've become.  You were a good son.