Conroy, Pat 1945–
Conroy, Pat 1945–
(Donald Patrick Conroy)
PERSONAL: Born October 26, 1945, in Atlanta, GA; son of Donald (a military officer) and Frances Dorothy (Peek) Conroy; married Barbara Bolling, 1969 (divorced, 1977); married Lenore Gurewitz, March 21, 1981; children: (first marriage) Megan; Jessica, Melissa (stepdaughters); (second marriage) Susannah; Gregory, Emily (stepchildren). Education: The Citadel, B.A., 1967. Politics: Democrat
CAREER: Novelist. Worked as an elementary schoolteacher in Daufuskie, SC, 1969, and as a high school teacher in Beaufort, SC, 1967–69.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Writers Guild, PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: Leadership Development grant, Ford Foundation, 1971; Anisfield-Wolf Award, Cleveland Foundation, 1972, for The Water Is Wide; National Endowment for the Arts award, 1974, for achievement in education; Georgia Governor's Award for Arts, 1978; Lillian Smith Award for fiction, Southern Regional Council, 1981; Robert Kennedy Book Award nomination, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, 1981, for The Lords of Discipline; inducted into South Carolina Hall of Fame Academy of Authors, 1988; Academy Award nomination for best screenplay (with Becky Johnson), 1987, for The Prince of Tides; Thomas Cooper Society Literary Award, University of South Carolina, 1995; South Carolina Governor's Award in the Humanities for Distinguished Achievement, 1996; Georgia Commission on the Holocaust Humanitarian Award, 1996; Lotos Medal of Merit, 1996, for outstanding literary achievement.
The Boo, McClure Press (Verona, VA), 1970.
The Water Is Wide, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1972.
The Great Santini, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1976.
The Lords of Discipline, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1980.
The Prince of Tides, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1986.
Beach Music, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995.
My Losing Season, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
(Adaptor with Becky Johnson) The Prince of Tides (screenplay; based on Conroy's novel), Paramount, 1991.
Author of screenplays, including television movie Invictus, 1988, and (with Doug Marlett) film Ex.
ADAPTATIONS: The film Conrack, based on The Water Is Wide, was produced by Twentieth Century-Fox, 1974, and was adapted as a musical by Granville Burgess and produced off-off Broadway, 1987; The Great Santini was adapted as a film by Warner Brothers, 1979; The Lords of Discipline was adapted as a film by Paramount, 1983; Warner Bros. purchased film rights to My Losing Season. Several of Conroy's works have been recorded as audiobooks.
SIDELIGHTS: Best-selling novelist Pat Conroy has worked some of his most bitter experiences into stories that present ironic, often jarring, yet humorous views of life and relationships in the contemporary South. Garry Abrams in the Los Angeles Times reported that "misfortune has been good to novelist Pat Conroy. It gave him a family of disciplinarians, misfits, eccentrics, liars and loudmouths. It gave him a Southern childhood in which the bizarre competed with the merely strange. It gave him a military school education apparently imported from Sparta by way of Prussia. It gave him a divorce and a breakdown followed by intensive therapy. It gave him everything he needed to write best sellers, make millions and live in Rome." Brigitte Weeks touched on Conroy's appeal in the Washington Post: "With his feet set firmly on his native earth, Conroy is, above all, a storyteller. His tales are full of the exaggeration and wild humor of stories told around a camp fire." A critic for Publishers Weekly explained that "Conroy is beloved for big, passionate, compulsively readable novels propelled by the emotional jet fuel of an abusive childhood." According to an essayist for Contemporary Novelists, "If a reader has experienced a Conroy novel before, he knows the book will be flawed, he knows the book is 500—plus pages, and he knows the characters are, in many ways, the same ones he knew in the last Conroy novel. But in ways, it's like returning to old friends and familiar places, and the lyricism of the prose is more than most readers can resist."
Critics frequently consider Conroy's novels to be autobiographical. Conroy's father was a Marine Corps pilot from Chicago who believed in strong discipline; his mother was an outwardly yielding Southerner who actually ran the household. "When he [Conroy's father] returned home from work my sister would yell, 'Godzilla's home' and the seven children would melt into whatever house we happened to be living in at the time. He was no match for my mother's byzantine and remarkable powers of intrigue. Neither were her children. It took me 30 years to realize that I had grown up in my mother's house and not my father's," Conroy commented in the Book-of-the-Month Club News. Still, critics frequently mention the ambivalent father-son relationships that appear in his novels. Gail Godwin in the New York Times Book Review described Conroy's work as having "twin obsessions—oppressive fathers or father figures, and the South. Against both they fight furiously for selfhood and independence, yet they never manage to secede from their seductive entrappers. Some fatal combination of nostalgia and loyalty holds them back; they remain ambivalent sons of their families and their region, alternately railing against, then shamelessly romanticizing, the myths and strictures that imprison them."
Conroy's first work to receive national attention was openly autobiographical. After college graduation he taught English in public high schools, but unsatisfied, he looked for a new challenge. When a desired position in the Peace Corps did not surface, he took a job teaching semi-illiterate black children on Daufuskie Island, a small, isolated area off the South Carolina coast. But he was not prepared for his new students. They did not know the name of their country, that they lived on the Atlantic Ocean, or that the world was round. On the other hand, Conroy found that his pupils expected him to know how to set a trap, skin a muskrat, and plant okra. He came to enjoy his unusual class, but eventually his unorthodox teaching methods—such as his unwillingness to allow corporal punishment of his students and disregard for the school's administration—cost him his job. As a way of coping with his fury at the dismissal, Conroy wrote The Water Is Wide, an account of his experiences. As he told Ted Mahar for the Oregonian, "When you get fired like that, you have to do something. I couldn't get a job with the charges the school board leveled against me." The process of writing did more than cool him down however; he also gained a new perspective on his reasons for choosing Daufuskie—Yamacraw Island in the book—and on his own responses to racism. Anatole Broyard described Conroy in the New York Times Book Review as "a former redneck and self-proclaimed racist, [who] brought to Yamacraw the supererogatory fervor of the recently converted." In The Water Is Wide, Conroy agreed: "At this time of my life a black man could probably have handed me a bucket of cow p―, commanded me to drink it in order that I might rid my soul of the stench of racism, and I would only have asked for a straw…. It dawned on me that I came to Yamacraw for a fallacious reason: I needed to be cleansed, born again, resurrected by good works and suffering, purified of the dark cankers that grew like toadstools in my past."
After the successful publication of The Water Is Wide, Conroy began writing full-time. Although his next book, The Great Santini, is a novel, many critics interpreted it as representing the author's adolescence. A writer in the Virginia Quarterly Review stated that "the dialogue, anecdotes, and family atmosphere are pure Marine and probably autobiographical." Conroy does draw heavily on his family background in his story of tough Marine Bull Meecham, Bull's long-suffering wife Lillian, and his eldest son Ben, who is striving for independence outside his father's control. Robert E. Burkholder wrote in Critique that The Great Santini "is a curious blend of lurid reality and fantastic comedy…. It is primarily a novel of initiation, but central to the concept of Ben's initiation into manhood and to the meaning of the whole novel is the idea that individual myths must be stripped away from Ben and the other major characters before Ben can approach reality with objectivity and maturity."
Part of Ben's growing up involves rejecting the image of his father's infallibility. In one scene, Ben finally beats his father at a game of basketball. As the game ends, he tells him: "Do you know, Dad, that not one of us here has ever beaten you in a single game? Not checkers, not dominoes, not softball, nothing."
According to Robert M. Willingham in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, after his defeat, "Bull does not outwardly change. He still blusters, curses, flashes toughness and resoluteness, but his family has become more to him than before. When Colonel Meecham's plane crashes and he is killed, one learns that the crash was unavoidable, but Bull's death was not: 'Am commencing starboard turn to avoid populated area. Will attempt to punch out when wings are level….' The priority was to avoid populated areas, 'where people lived and slept, where families slept. Families like my family, wives like my wife, sons like my sons, daughters like my daughters.' He never punched out."
Bull Meecham is modeled on Conroy's father, Colonel Donald Conroy, who "would make John Wayne look like a pansy," as Conroy told Bill McDonald for the South Carolina State. Conroy reported that his father initially disliked The Great Santini, telling Chicago Tribune contributor Peer Gorner: "Dad could only read the book halfway through before throwing it across the room. Then people started telling him he actually was lovable. Now, he signs Christmas cards The Great Santini, and goes around talking about childrearing and how we need to have more discipline in the home—a sort of Nazi Dr. Spock." The movie based on the novel helped to change the colonel's attitude. The Great Santini starred Robert Duvall, and the Colonel liked the way "his" character came across. In a Washington Post interview, Conroy related an incident of one-upmanship that seems borrowed from the book. "He (the Colonel) came to the opening of 'The Great Santini' movie here in Washington. I introduced the film to the audience, and in the course of my remarks I pointed out why he had chosen the military as a career. It was, of course, something that occurred to him on the day when he discovered that his body temperature and his IQ were the same number. Then, when it was his turn to talk, all he said was, 'I want to say that my body temperature has always been 160 degrees.' People laughed harder. So you see, I still can't beat him."
Another period of Conroy's life appeared in his next book, The Lords of Discipline. According to his father's wishes, Conroy attended the Citadel, South Carolina's venerable military academy. "Quirky, eccentric, and unforgettable" is how Conroy described the academy in the preface to The Boo, his first book, which takes a nostalgic look at the Citadel and its commander of cadets during the 1960s. Willingham described the Citadel in another way: "It is also an anachronism of the 1960s with a general disregard for the existence of the outside world." The Lords of Discipline paints an even bleaker picture of the institution through the fictionalized Carolina Military Institute. This school, stated Frank Rose in the Washington Post Book World, "combines some of the more quaint and murderous aspects of the Citadel, West Point, and Virginia Military Institute."
The Lords of Discipline concerns Will, the narrator, and his three roommates. Will is a senior cadet assigned to watch over the Institute's first black student. The novel's tension lies in the conflict between group loyalty and personal responsibility. Will eventually discovers the Ten, "a secret mafia whose existence has long been rumored but never proven, a silent and malevolent force dedicated … to maintain the purity of the Institute—racial purity included," commented Rose. He continued, "What Conroy has achieved is twofold; his book is at once a suspense-ridden duel between conflicting ideals of manhood and a paean to brother love that ends in betrayal and death. Out of the shards of broken friendship a blunted triumph emerges, and it is here, when the duel is won, that the reader finally comprehends the terrible price that any form of manhood can exact."
According to its author, The Lords of Discipline describes the love between men. "I wrote it because I wanted to tell about how little women understand about men," he explained in a Washington Post article. "The one cultural fact of life about military schools is that they are men living with men. And they love each other. The love between these men is shown only in obscure ways, which have to be learned by them. The four roommates who go through this book are very different from each other, but they have a powerful code. They have ways to prove their love to each other, and they're part of the rites of passage." And contradicting an old myth, Conroy added, "There is no homosexuality under these conditions. If you smile, they'll kill you. You can imagine what would happen to a homosexual."
While The Lords of Discipline portrays deep friendships, it also contains a theme common to many of Conroy's books: the coexistence of love and brutality. "This book … makes The Lord of the Flies sound like The Sound of Music," wrote Christian Williams in the Washington Post. A Chicago Tribune Book World reviewer warned, "Conroy's chilling depictions of haz-ing are for strong stomachs only." And George Cohen in a later Chicago Tribune Books article described the novel's pull for readers: "It is our attraction to violence—observed from the safest of places—together with our admiration for the rebel who beats the system, and Conroy's imposing ability as a storyteller that make the novel engrossing."
Conroy's The Prince of Tides follows Tom Wingo, an unemployed high school English teacher and football coach, on a journey from coastal South Carolina to New York City to help his twin sister Savannah. Savannah, a well-known poet, is recovering from a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. In an attempt to help Savannah's psychiatrist understand her patient, Tom relates the Wingo family's bizarre history. Despite the horrors the Wingos have suffered, including several rapes and the death of their brother, a sense of optimism prevails. Judy Bass stated in Chicago's Tribune Books, "Conroy has fashioned a brilliant novel that ultimately affirms life, hope and the belief that one's future need not be contaminated by a monstrous past. In addition, Conroy … deals with the most prostrating crises in human experience—death of a loved one, parental brutality, injustice, insanity—without lapsing into pedantry or oppressive gloom."
The Prince of Tides attracted critical attention due to its style alone. Some critics felt the novel is overblown: Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review claimed that "inflation is the order of the day. The characters do too much, feel too much, suffer too much, eat too much, signify too much, and above all, talk too much. And, as with the classical American tomato, quantity is at the expense of quality." Godwin found that while "the ambition, invention and sheer irony in this book are admirable …, many readers will be put off by the turgid, high-flown rhetoric that the author must have decided would best match his grandiose designs. And as the bizarre, hyperbolic episodes of Wingo family life mount up, other readers are likely to feel they are being bombarded by whoppers told by an overwrought boy eager to impress or shock." But more critics appreciated what Detroit News contributor Ruth Pollack Coughlin called "spectacular, lyrical prose with a bitter sense of humor." The novel is long, admitted Weeks, "monstrously long, yet a pleasure to read, flawed yet stuffed to the endpapers with lyricism, melodrama, anguish and plain old suspense. Given all that, one can brush aside its lapses like troublesome flies."
In his long-awaited Beach Music, Conroy continues to mine his personal and family experiences. He weaves into this novel the difficulties of family relationships, the pain of a mother's death, changing friendships, and the personal impact of global events such as the Holocaust, Vietnam, and present-day terrorism. What Conroy creates is a story of family, betrayal, and place. As Don Paul wrote in the San Francisco Review of Books, "In Beach Music Pat Conroy takes the theme of betrayal and fashions from it a story rambling and uneven and, like the family it portrays, erratic and flawed and magnificent. South Carolina overflows from his pages, sentimental and unforgiving, soft as sleepy pears and hard as turtle shells."
Beach Music is the story of Jack McCall. After his wife commits suicide, McCall leaves South Carolina and takes his young daughter to Italy to escape his memories and his strained relationships with his own and his wife's family. He returns home when his mother becomes ill with leukemia and finds himself caught up in the lives and intrigues of family and close friends. McCall and his friends are forced by current events to revisit the Vietnam era in their small South Carolina community. Some joined the military, some joined the antiwar movement, and some struggled with both. As Paul explained, "Central to the plot is the betrayal of the anti-war movement by a friend who turns out to be an FBI informer." The effect of this act continue to ripple into the novel's present.
The many characters, events, and themes make, in the opinion of Detroit Free Press contributor Barbara Holliday, for a long, convoluted book: "Conroy sets out to do too much and loses his focus in this novel…. But despite some fine passages, Beach Music finally becomes tiring, and that's too bad for one of the country's finer writers." A reviewer offered a more positive evaluation in Publishers Weekly: "Conroy has not lost his touch. His storytelling powers have not failed; neither has his fluid, poetic skill with words, nor his vivid imagination. His long-awaited sixth book sings with the familiar Southern cadences, his prose is sweepingly lyrical." And John Berendt, in a Vanity Fair profile of Conroy, called Beach Music "a novel rich in haunting imagery and seductive, suspenseful storytelling, a worthy successor to The Prince of Tides." Berendt added, "In Beach Music … Conroy proves once again that he is the master of place, that he can take possession of any local—Rome, Venice, South Carolina—merely by wrapping his sumptuous prose around it."
Conroy turned to his stint as point guard for the Citadel's basketball team in his memoir My Losing Season. The 1966–67 season was a bad one for the team, with an 8-17 record, but Conroy's memory of the time paints it "as an odyssey of hardwood heroics, Olympian fortitude and larger-than-life adversaries, with the occasional temptations of a coed siren," according to Don McLeese in Book. Conroy, in fact, argues that losing teaches you more than does winning. "This whole book is a love letter to losing and the lessons it teaches about friendship, courage, honesty and self-appraisal," explained Malcolm Jones in Newsweek. A critic for Kirkus Reviews admitted that "Conroy can be entertaining and endearingly self-effacing," while Wes Lukowsky in Booklist found that "this is a coming-of-age memoir, really, and it is in that context that Conroy's fans will most enjoy it."
Because of the autobiographical nature of Conroy's work, his family often judges his novels more harshly than do reviewers. Although Conroy's mother is the inspiration for shrimper's wife Lila Wingo in The Prince of Tides, she died before he finished the novel and never read it. Conroy's sister, who did see the book, was offended. As Conroy told Rick Groen for the Toronto Globe and Mail, "Yes, my sister is also a poet in New York who has also had serious breakdowns. We were very close, but she has not spoken to me … since the book. I'm saddened, but when you write autobiography, this is one of the consequences. They're allowed to be mad at you. They have the right." This, however, was not the first time a family member reacted negatively to one of Conroy's books. The Great Santini infuriated his Chicago relatives: "My grandmother and grandfather told me they never wanted to see me or my children again," Conroy told Sam Staggs for Publishers Weekly. Conroy's Southern relatives have also responded to the sex scenes and "immodest" language in his books. Staggs related, "After The Lords of Discipline was published, Conroy's Aunt Helen telephoned him and said, 'Pat, I hope someday you'll write a book a Christian can read.' 'How far did you get?' her nephew asked. 'Page four, and I declare, I've never been so embarrassed.'"
Perhaps the most sobering moment for Conroy's autobiographical impulse was when a tragic event from his writing came true. In early manuscripts of Beach Music Conroy included a scene where one of the characters, based on his younger brother Tom, commits suicide. Tom Conroy, a paranoid schizophrenic, did commit suicide in August of 1994. Devastated, Conroy removed the scene from Beach Music.
Hollywood has given Conroy's novels a warm reception. In addition to the film adaptation of The Great Santini, The Water Is Wide was made into Conrack, starring Jon Voight, and later became a musical. The Lords of Discipline kept the same title as a film featuring David Keith. Conroy himself cowrote the screenplay for The Prince of Tides, learning a lesson about Hollywood in the process.
Conroy explained his method of writing to Gorner: "When I'm writing, I have no idea where I'm going. People get married, and I didn't realize they were engaged. People die in these novels and I'm surprised. They take on this little subterranean life of their own. They reveal secrets to me even as I'm doing it. Maybe this is a dangerous way to work, but for me it becomes the pleasure of writing…. Critics call me a popular novelist, but writing popular novels isn't what urges me on. If I could write like Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe, I surely would. I'd much rather write like them than like me. Each book has been more ambitious. I'm trying to be more courageous."
An essayist for Contemporary Southern Writers concluded: "Conroy's work is distinguished by its focus on characters coping with and attempting to rise above often bitter conflicts within families and relationships and by his loving recreation of Southern settings and culture…. Whether the conflicts are more overt and active, as in The Great Santini, or slowly revealed and psychological, as in The Prince of Tides, Conroy's work is repeatedly peopled with stern and demanding, sometimes abusive father figures and characters attempting to transcend such harshness to establish a more life-embracing identity."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, Second Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 27, 1988, p. J1.
Book, November-December, 2002, Don McLeese, review of My Losing Season, p. 82.
Booklist, August, 2002, Wes Lukowsky, review of My Losing Season, p. 1882.
Book-of-the-Month Club News, December, 1986.
Chicago Tribune, November 25, 1986.
Chicago Tribune Book World, October 19, 1980.
Cincinnati Enquirer, March 25, 1974.
Critique, Volume 21, number 1, 1979.
Detroit Free Press, July 9, 1995, p. 7G.
Detroit News, October 12, 1986; December 20, 1987.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 28, 1987; November 28, 1987.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of My Losing Season, p. 1089.
Library Journal, September 1, 2002, James Thorsen, review of My Losing Season, p. 184.
Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1983; October 12, 1986; October 19, 1986; December 12, 1986.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 19, 1986, p. 3.
Newsweek, October 14, 2002, Malcolm Jones, "Conroy's Literary Slam-Dunk: A Writer Revisits Life as a Jock, and as a Tortured Son," p. 63.
New York Times, January 10, 1987.
New York Times Book Review, July 13, 1972; September 24, 1972; December 7, 1980; October 12, 1986, p. 14.
Oregonian, April 28, 1974.
People, February 2, 1981, p. 67.
Publishers Weekly, May 15, 1972; September 5, 1986; May 8, 1995, p. 286: July 10, 1995, p. 16, July 31, 1995, p. 17; September 30, 2002, Tracy Cochran, "A Winning Career: Pat Conroy Proves That Writing Well Is the Best Revenge," p. 41, and review of My Losing Season, p. 60; October 28, 2002, Daisy Maryles, "Conroy's Winning Book," p. 20.
San Francisco Review of Books, July-August, 1995, p. 24.
State (Columbia, South Carolina), March 31, 1974.
Time, October 13, 1986, p. 97; June 26, 1995, p. 77.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 14, 1986, p. 23; October 19, 1986, p. 3; January 3, 1988, p. 3.
Vanity Fair, July, 1995, p. 108.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1976.
Washington Post, October 23, 1980; March 9, 1992, p. B3.
Washington Post Book World, October 19, 1980; October 12, 1986.
Pat Conroy Web site, http://www.patconroy.com/ (November 6, 2003).