Conroy pours lifetime of pain into his stories Close to Home

July 07, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- You can't help liking Pat Conroy. Forget all the stereotypes of the private, guarded writer when it comes to this guy. He's a big, outgoing man with a ready smile and an engaging manner. He's got a million stories, mostly about himself and his pretty weird family, and he tells even the sad ones with humor and charm. In fact, he may be the world's nicest egotist.

He's a world-class raconteur, one who says he was influenced by the storytelling traditions of the two groups he belongs to: the Irish and Southerners. Here's a typical Conroy story:

"My father used to say that if he hit me a little more, I'd be a better writer. I told him, 'Dad, if you hit me any more, I'd be Shakespeare.' "

Yes, Pat Conroy can't seem to stop talking about himself, and he sure can't stop writing about himself. His just-published sixth novel, "Beach Music" draws heavily upon his tumultuous life, just as "The Prince of Tides," "The Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline" and his other books did.

If one must suffer for one's art, as teachers are fond of saying, then Pat Conroy certainly is a member of the club. For instance, most writers, when they finish a book, sit back and wait for the reviews to gauge how successful they have been. With Mr. Conroy, it's wondering which member of his family will stop talking to him.

So when the long-awaited "Beach Music" finally hit the bookstores last week -- nine years after his multimillion-selling "The Prince of Tides" -- his father called his home in Fripp Island, S.C.

Don Conroy, of course, may be the most famous abusive dad of this generation -- literarily speaking, at least. He was immortalized as the cold and cruel Bull Meacham, U.S. Marine fighter pilot and terrorizer of his children, in his son's 1980 novel, "The Great Santini," and he and his son have spent much of the last 15 years in a sort of did-not-did-so repartee about whether Don actually beat up his kids, as Pat has frequently said and written.

"My father called me up and said, 'I hear you made me a drunk judge and a general in this book, " Mr. Conroy, 49, says with a grin. "I said, 'Dad, can I get away from this?'

" 'Well you made me a shrimper in "The Prince of Tides." '

"So I said, 'Dad, every time I write about a father, I'm not writing about you. I'm sure there are elements of you, but I try to do this from a different place.' "

Mr. Conroy's father is still speaking to him, though. He'll even sign autographs "The Great Santini," and his son says with good humor, "Dad just likes being in the center. He likes the publicity. I called him the other day and he said, 'Did you catch me on the tube? I was great. You weren't worth a damn.' "

He tells this story, as he does so often, with an adroit mixture of humor and pathos. His books are like that, too: both funny and sad, and drenched with emotion. But that duality is what makes him fascinating -- gregarious and extremely funny on the outside, and brooding and intense on the inside. All his life, he has fought depression, which he calls "the Irish shadow," and he has had several nervous breakdowns. His life is not an open book, but an open wound.

And, genial banter notwithstanding, he seems permanently damaged by his relationship with his father. "In most writers, writing is also a means of exorcism," Nan A. Talese, his editor at Doubleday, told the Atlanta Constitution recently. "The violence of the father figures in all his books. I think this whole thing haunts Pat." (One of the father figures in "Beach Music," a retired military officer, is so unbending and cruel to his son as to be nearly unbelievable.)

The ramifications of that fractious relationship are seen in other ways. Mr. Conroy acknowledges, "I don't think I was a very good father. One of the things that always bothered me was how to show fatherly love."

Characters in flight

There were other aspects of his childhood that haunt him today. His family moved around constantly when his father was in the Marine Corps, and Pat Conroy still carries the scars.

"Because of the military life, I'm a stranger everywhere and a stranger nowhere," he once wrote. "I can engage anyone in a conversation, become well-liked in a matter of seconds, yet there is a distance I can never recover, a slight shiver of alienation, of not belonging, and an eye on the nearest door. The word goodby will always be a killing thing to me, but so is the word hello."

But, he says over breakfast in a Washington hotel, being constantly on the move had its benefits as well.

"It was hard moving around, sure, but if you were ever in a town that didn't work out, when you took off, you got a new start," he says. "You wiped the slate clean.

"And you could renew yourself. If you had messed up somewhere else, like you had been humiliated at a football game, well nobody would know it. And there was something purifying about it. I saw myself remaking my image every year."

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