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The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son

By Pat Conroy

Doubleday

338 pages, $28.95

By Gene Warner

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

The first 12 pages of this book – the prologue detailing the war of physical and psychological abuse that Don Conroy waged on his family – are absolutely scary. Not Stephen King or Hannibal Lecter scary. No, this is worse. Because Don Conroy is no fictional character; he was a real man, albeit a badly flawed one, the main inspiration for the magical pen of his oldest son, Pat Conroy.

As Conroy writes of his otherwise-heroic Marine Corps fighter-pilot father, “I remember hating him even when I was in diapers.”

Only a gifted wordsmith like Pat Conroy can convey the reign of terror created by his father every time he walked through the front door of the family home. Not only was there the physical and emotional abuse, but his children still can’t remember him offering any encouraging words, or ever making them laugh or taking them out for a hot dog or soda. While none of us can know for sure how fair and accurate this portrayal is, Pat Conroy attempts to document, with facts, just how bad his childhood home was. First, five of the seven Conroy children, at some point in their lives, tried to harm themselves. And when Pat Conroy sent his editor the first few chapters of “The Great Santini,” his fictional portrayal of his father, the editor asked him to write a few softer and kinder scenes – just to make it more believable

You get the feeling that Pat Conroy’s been waiting his whole life to empty these words onto the printed page. Sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, the author paints a haunting portrait of life inside the Conroy household.

This is the definitive Conroy family biography, the nonfiction version.

Who’s going to love this book? Pat Conroy fans, anyone who treasures great writing and readers searching for a family more dysfunctional than their own.

This really is three books in one: the terrifying prologue, followed by about 300 pages detailing the dynamics of the main characters in the Conroy family over the years, and then, finally, a seven-page epilogue containing the author’s eulogy for his father.

Rarely, if ever, has a character in American literature undergone such a drastic transformation as Don Conroy does in this book. As a reader, you never like him. But he comes off as much more humane in his later years. Apparently, a lifetime of writing therapy, life experiences and wisdom has given Pat Conroy a different slant on his father. The facts haven’t changed, but the view has.

The obvious question: Did Pat Conroy hate or love his father? The answer, it seems, is both.

There are other compelling portraits here, especially the tragedy of Pat Conroy’s younger brother, Tom, and the hard-to-describe mental state of sister Carol Ann, who may have been the most victimized surviving child. It’s also fascinating to see how the Conroy clan, initially up in arms over its portrayal in “The Great Santini,” changed its view once that book went to the big screen.

And, as always, Pat Conroy displays his golden writing touch, both in recounting witty family dialogue and painting his canvas with stylish, often poignant, metaphors. His eulogy for his father is an absolute masterpiece.

Pat Conroy, in that tribute, compares his and other military-hero fathers to other people’s dads in Beaufort, S.C. “Your dads,” he told the crowd, “ran the barbershop and worked at the post office and delivered packages on time and sold cars, while ‘our dads’ blew up fuel depots near Seoul and provided courageous air support to beleaguered Marines and turned one river red with the blood of a retreating North Korean battalion.

“Your fathers made communities like Beaufort decent and prosperous and functional,” he said. “Our fathers made the world safe for democracy.”

And then the ultimate tribute: “There should be no sorrow at this funeral, because the Great Santini lived life at full throttle, moved always in the fast lanes, gunned every engine, teetered on every edge, seized every moment and shook it like a terrier shaking a rat.”

Don Conroy came a long way in 300 pages.

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.