I first started reading Pat Conroy for the same reason I drank my coffee black—my dad did it, and I loved my dad. His office at our house outside Chicago was my favorite room in the house, and I would sometimes lie down on the floor and inhale the smell of the books that lined the walls. He had a habit of running his thumb around his mouth while he read, and he would occasionally pause to write particularly meaningful passages on the blank front pages of the book. I did that, too.
Pat Conroy died last week. A month ago he announced that he had pancreatic cancer, and then said “I intend to fight it hard.” Trying to fight pancreatic cancer is like trying to punch through a brick wall, but up until a few days ago we lived in a world in which nothing was impossible for Pat Conroy. Now we live in a world in which everything is impossible for him, and we are somehow left behind, those of us who loved him, to read his books and remember his world without him.
Conroy grew up Catholic in the South, an anomaly that made him feel like a perennial outsider. His father was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and his mother was a housewife and a fierce personality. There were seven Conroy children, and every day when Dad got home from work one of them would yell, “Godzilla’s home!” and the children would scatter to their respective corners of the house in whatever state they happened to be living in at the time. Don Conroy was a physically abusive man, a trait his son did not shy away from depicting in his many novels and, eventually, his memoirs. Southern men and women of Conroy’s generation did not grow up in a world that offered counseling or treated abuse as something to be discussed; it was a world that had a great deal invested in a certain kind of stoic masculinity. Pat Conroy wrote openly about his childhood abuse; he spilled pages and pages of ink talking about what it was like to be hit and threatened and caught in between his mother and father when he was sure one of them would die. There is a scene in Prince of Tides in which the Pat Conroy character gets hit and knocked down by his father at home, and runs into his mother’s arms. His father looks at him, at his child, and laughs. “I would run from that mocking, cheapening laughter for the rest of my life,” Conroy writes, “always away from him, always toward the soft, embracing places.”
The soft, embracing places looked a lot like his family of origin; a puzzle he could never quite put together. Although he made the bestseller lists many times, Pat Conroy wrote one book. Its various forms—Lords of Discipline, The Water is Wide, and his most famous, The Prince of Tides—varied slightly in place and time, but the story was always the same: the honey-sweet mother who was cunning as a serpent; the charming but despotic father; and the scrappy upstart of a son who, blissfully unaware of the advantages he already possessed, managed to scrape his way to success. His own story was the one he would tell time and time again, a Southern Catholic boy trying to become the good man his father could never be, falling in love with every woman and old home and sunset he saw along the way. In the great tradition of Southern writers, Conroy was marked by place in a way that haunted his writing, as with the opening of Prince of Tides: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” He understood that the very thing that hurts us is also, most often, the thing that we love; that grief and joy are two sides of the same coin.
What Elena Ferrante is to many people, Pat Conroy was to me: The patron saint of friendship writing. Ferrante has written to much acclaim about what people call “female friendship,” and while I don’t deny that female friendship possesses an alchemy all its own, it was the man Conroy who first wrote friendship in a way that I recognized. It was Lords of Discipline that first gave me the understanding of friendship as an ongoing act of self-sacrifice for the good of another person; Conroy recognized that, in friendship, we create something redemptive out of the most broken parts of ourselves. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis described philia, or friendly love, as “the least natural of loves, the least instinctive.” Philia is exactly what is on display in this scene from Lords of Discipline, where the four roommates—including Will McLean, the Pat Conroy character—share a table at the local bar:
Mark did not or could not speak a word, he was so powerfully moved. He finished the wine and squeezed each of our shoulders with his hand. Tradd and I gave yelps of pain. Pig looked at Mark with an expression of naïve placid sentimentality. Pig’s eyes had filled up with love of us, with the amazed, free-floating love of the world he always radiated when something touched his heart.
There was no room for restraint or subtlety in Conroy’s writing, because there was no room for restraint in his world. He was a larger-than-life man, and in some ways reminded me of my own father whose love for his children was most frequently expressed in moments of great silliness or deep emotion. “I was never going to be a part of any minimalist trend,” Conroy told the Baltimore Sun in 2010, and it’s true: he has never met an adjective he didn’t like. When I was doing my MFA in writing and was asked to name a favorite author, I denied Conroy just like Peter denied Jesus. I was a little embarrassed to say that this sentimental Southern man with the overlong books was the one who made me want to write. But he was.
Conroy was a language I spoke with my father. One Father’s Day I presented him with a signed copy of The Boo, Conroy’s first (and only out-of-print) book. Before I went away to college, I wrote and framed one of my favorite passages in literature and gave it to my dad to put in his office. If you pick up my copy of Prince of Tides it automatically falls open to page 324, where Tom Wingo is describing his itinerant preacher grandfather:
I would like to have talked to yard dogs and tanagers as if they were my friends and fellow travelers along the sun-tortured highways, intoxicated with a love of God, swollen with charity like a rainbow, in the thoughtless mingling of its hues, connecting two distant fields in its glorious arc. I would like to have seen the world with eyes incapable of anything but wonder, and with a tongue fluent only in praise.
In an age in which “lol nothing matters” and “everything is garbage” are reigning means of discourse on the Internet, Pat Conroy offers a useful corrective. The world is full of beauty and meaning, and even when we fail to live up to her, the person we could be is always waiting for us. “I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day,” he wrote in the opening of The Death of Santini, his memoir about his father. He is relieved now from that burden, although his leaving is our loss.