The Author Has Died
Pat Conroy has died, and I must write.
It is so totally inconvenient. It's been a long week. I'm sitting here with a mug of tea that is guaranteed to put me to sleep. I should be in the other room watching Criminal Minds. I've just come back from a dinner with interesting people, brought together by an interesting situation, a place where Pat would love to hold court. I'm body and brain tired. I just HAVE TO put these few thoughts down on what passes for paper in these digital times we live in. Pat Conroy was my college commencement speaker.
Through the haze of 40 years, as I remember it, the college pr guy, who had the misfortune of being the newspaper advisor while I was Editor (two years, no less) was pacing and wondering, not to himself, "Is he ever going to get here?" It was much later that I realized I should have known Pat was probably sitting at Sue Summer's house drinking something, probably talking to Gene Norris and just let the time get away. The college president wanted Pat to say something profound. What I and the rest of the Class of 1975 at Newberry College heard was, "These are great times to be alive. Some of you might even find jobs."
I did find a job that same summer. I became a professional writer. Not a writer like Pat, although he did at times enjoy penning a good Letter to the Editor. He went to a newspaper to announce he had pancreatic cancer, just a few weeks ago. Now, he has crossed the wide water from Fripp Island. The beach wind blows gently, South Carolina has lost a powerful figure.
A great ambassador, who marched for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the top of the Statehouse dome. Who called out The Citadel for all its pomposity. Who told on his own father, shed light on domestic abuse, turned his old man into a contrite if not quite forgiveable character. I remember Pat one time made an appearance at Newberry College, long after that commencement speech, and the old man was with him. I was covering the thing as editor of the town paper. Conroy's father had learned to embrace being Santini - he would sit with Pat at book signings and say stuff like, Yeah I was tough on him, but look how he turned out. I think I did a damn good job.
A good job - of letting out his own demons out and terrorizing his family. Such a good job that they made a movie out of it, although by all reckonings it's a PG-13 version of what actually happened to the 7 Conroy kids and their poor mother, a woman so saintly she actually gets the credit for Conroy becoming a writer. Credit from the author himself - he says she read to him as a child. That made him want to write, that made him want to teach English on the farthest corner of South Carolina civiliation. He got fired from that job, Pat just never could wash the saltwater marsh from his veins.
He went to Rome to write one of his most famous books. He always came back to South Carolina. Lord, if he had just stayed healthy, what magic he could have written about what our state went through in 2015.
Literary giant is a pompous term, and Pat hated pomposity. He wanted things true, if a little romantic. He romantizied his losing season on The Citadel basketball team, but the book has a few too many, and unnecessary, obsenities in it for my taste. Kind of like that rapper who wants you to know what a bad ass he or she is - trying too hard.
James Dickey was a literary giant, and he let people know it. Pat Conroy was a literary giant, and he wanted to forget it. At one point he lost himself in cooking. Recently, he made a resolution to get healthy. Too little, too late for that respector of no one - cancer.
Cancer is like hate. It tears apart everything it touches. Like hate, there is no cure, once you got it you will always have it. Oh, it might go into remission but sooner or later it again raises its hateful head. Cancer is purely evil. Cancer eats a body from the inside out. Cancer has claimed the life of a South Carolina son, an adopted son to be sure - his family moved constantly while the old man was in the military. Finally, at 15, Pat Conroy said that was enough when he landed in Beaufort. He said once he attached himself to the place like barnacles to a ship, sticky and steadfast, eating away at the paint.
Pat Conroy did that. He ate away at the paint that makes everything bright and shiney. He showed us there are black children on a barrier island who time and opportunity forgot. He showed us a bastion of male political dominance that needed to come into the 20th Century, and is richer today for having done so. A place where the Confederate flag stands today in a place of honor, because a state law says only the legislature by a majority vote can remove it. Protection of heritage, they call it. Pat would have another name - but what would you expect? Of a liberal. Of a writer, somebody who's been to New York City? What would I expect?
I would expect Heaven's Literary Round Table to have just gotten a whole lot livelier.
(Vic MacDonald is editor of The Clinton Chronicle. Reach him at 833-1900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)