Pat Conroy had a gift for transforming the brutalities of the world into something beautiful.
When the bestselling author of The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides and nine other books died at age 70 on March 4, less than a month after announcing that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the news was met with an outpouring of grief and affection from his fans and from other writers.
The comments that flowed on social media had a common theme: Conroy's books had touched people on a personal level, made them feel as if he understood them and expressed their own struggles and joys.
That sense was perhaps born of the fact that Conroy seemed to share so much of himself. His novels all, to some degree, danced along the line between fiction and autobiography, and four of his books are outright memoirs (five if you count his first, The Water Is Wide, which has been classified as both memoir and fiction).
Critical response to Conroy's books, especially to his style, was always mixed. He was often dinged for overwriting and purple prose — maybe an inevitable problem for a man who called Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel) his first inspiration.
Conroy took such criticism in stride. In an interview a few years ago, he said, "When I write action, it's short and punchy. But when I pontificate, I revert to a hydrogen-filled dirigible — although people seem to like it."
In an interview with NPR after Conroy's death, his editor of 35 years, Nan Talese, recalled the first thing he said to her when they met. "He said, 'I will tell you, if there are 10 words for something, I will use all 10. Your job is to take them out.' "
But, Talese said, Conroy touched people with his honesty. "His incredible sense of empathy with people. … I think that his books influenced a lot of people because he was so open and honest. And it really struck their hearts."
In fiction and in memoir, Conroy always deployed the material of his own life, often with breathtaking vulnerability. Some of that material was harrowing — his rootless, brutal childhood; his experience of the systemic violence and racism of a military academy in the 1960s; the depression, divorce and loss of loved ones that scarred his adulthood.
Some of it, though, was enchanting, especially his profound sense of place. Born into a military family in Atlanta, young Pat had attended 11 schools by the time he was 15. He found his heart's home when the Conroys settled in Beaufort, S.C. He would, throughout his career, write about Beaufort, Charleston and the Lowcountry with lyrical adoration, and live there for much of his life.
That sense of place earned him legions of fans in the South, but his readership extended far beyond the region. Countless readers identified with his characters in such books as The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline (two of the four Conroy novels that became movies).
The Great Santini, based on his childhood, is a thinly veiled (and, as Conroy later revealed in his memoirs, a kind) portrait of his father, Donald Conroy, a decorated Marine fighter pilot and war hero who physically and emotionally abused his wife and seven children.
Published in 1976, The Great Santini infuriated the elder Conroy and created a deep rift between Pat Conroy and his family. But it also moved readers who had endured similar childhoods — for the rest of his life, Conroy's appearances at book signings and other events would often bring him face to face with people who wanted to share their own stories of abuse.
The Great Santini performed a greater feat of empathy than that, though. Conroy said on many occasions that it gave him back his father.
Donald Conroy's feelings about The Great Santini gradually changed, especially after the 1979 movie based on it. "My father thinks he's personally responsible for Robert Duvall's career," Conroy said of Duvall's Oscar-nominated performance in the title role.
In later years, the elder Conroy mellowed into what his son called "the greatest second act I ever saw." He became something of a celebrity and attended book signings with Pat, who joked his father wrote longer inscriptions in the novel than its author did. Donald Conroy died in 1998. His tombstone is headed "The Great Santini."
The Lords of Discipline, published in 1980, was based on Conroy's experiences as a cadet at the Citadel, South Carolina's military college, in the mid 1960s. An opponent of racism and the Vietnam War, Conroy was not an easy fit in the college's culture.
The novel's vivid depiction of a campus plagued by violent racism and ritualized bullying so intense it drives some characters to suicide enraged many of the Citadel's graduates as well as its administration and faculty.
When a film version of The Lords of Discipline was made in 1983, its cameras were banned from the campus. For a while, Conroy joked that Jane Fonda and Saddam Hussein were more likely to get invitations to speak at the Citadel than he was.
But, slowly, the Citadel changed, perhaps in part because of what The Lords of Discipline brought to light. In 2000, the college gave Conroy an honorary degree. In 2001, he delivered the school's commencement address — and invited the graduates to come to his funeral, whenever that might be.
To the end, Conroy shared his experiences with readers. He announced his deadly cancer diagnosis in a post on his Facebook page that began, as was his habit, "Hey out there." In the same post, he wrote, "I owe you a novel and I intend to deliver it."
More than 1,000 people attended his funeral at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Beaufort. Among them were more than 30 of those 2001 Citadel graduates.
According to Talese, Conroy completed the first 150 pages or so of the novel, titled Aquarius, and it will be published. The book focuses on a boy and his mother who live in the servant's quarters of a grand Charleston house and involves the Vietnam War.
Whatever story it tells, we can expect that Pat Conroy will share a little more of himself.