Southerners are about family, and the Conroy family is no exception, especially since one of its members, Pat, the eldest boy, turned out to be a writer of exceeding gifts. The time has come for Conroy to bare all, real names and events, instead of the fictional guises we have seen heretofore.
As Conroy fans know well, the Great Santini was pilot Don Conroy, fabled father of the Conroy (fictional Meecham) clan who, having no war to fight, attacked and battered his wife and seven children. He did so with no apparent conscience, his verbal cruelties as devastating as his fists. When Conroy begged his father to get him a waiver to join the Air Force and do his old man proud despite his poor eyesight, the old man spouted: "Tough titty, winkie dink…you'll never be a fighter pilot." Not surprisingly, the author recalls, "My military career ended at that moment." Santini was "born to hate." Conroy states baldly, "I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate." Santini crippled his spouse and progeny emotionally and hurt them physically. Yet he was surprised when his wife Peg finally decided to divorce him, and his eldest son turned him into the bad father of all bad fathers in print.
"[B]uoyed up by Conroy's always fertile phrasing and aromatic prose, this offering bounces along safely, though we know that the outcomes can only be sorrowful."
There is a danger in writing not one but several books about one's family, and THE DEATH OF SANTINI runs all the predictable rapids: digging too deeply and showing too much soiled linen can, with time, alienate the most loyal reader. But buoyed up by Conroy's always fertile phrasing and aromatic prose, this offering bounces along safely, though we know that the outcomes can only be sorrowful. Peg will die, battling leukemia but able to jibe with Conroy about the epic film of her life: "I'd like Meryl Streep to play the role." He recalls his mother as a distant figure who "would kiss us in the most gossamer fashion." The Great Santini, who in later years happily adopted the villainous nickname that had given him second-hand fame, came to visit his ex-wife as she languished in her last months, and she actually looked forward to seeing him. He also haunted Conroy's book signings, making a big Irish joke of his abusive reputation and allowing him to be the bigger man.
When brother Tom committed suicide in his early 30s, Conroy had to castigate his father for trying to divide the loyalties and loves of his remaining children at the funeral. And when his father's death was imminent, Conroy himself felt again the deep abiding rift between himself and his poet sister Carol Ann, who couldn't let the occasion pass without lashing out at Santini. "Carol Ann," the author opines, "was the clear winner in the Conroy siblings' sweepstakes for human lunacy." It seemed all of Don and Peg's children went through life with an invisible limp. United mainly at funerals, they have only uneasy peace among them, all trained to mistrust by the Great Santini.
After fulfilling his resolution to "examine the wreckage one more time," Conroy vows that he will not write about his parents again. He even hints that, with THE DEATH OF SANTINI, he may have written his last book ever. After all, his father liked to say, "I was always your best subject, son."
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on November 1, 2013