Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Great...Pat Conroy

Years back I discovered Pat Conroy while I was searching for short stories to use with my summer school English class. There was an excerpt from The Prince of Tides in one of the text books I was using as a resource. I fell in love with his use of language...the poetry of his prose...and I picked up the whole book. The Prince of Tides led me to Beach Music and then on to The Lords of Discipline. Right after The Lords of Discipline, I searched high and low trying to get a copy of The Boo. I finally managed to find one from a distant library that loaned it to my library so I could read it. Every time I read a Pat Conroy novel, I thought it was better than the last - but that could be a mere proximity issue. If I went back and read Prince of Tides again, I would probably think it the best simply because it was closest in my memory. BUT, that distinction belongs to The Great Santini at present.

The Great Santini is the story of a Marine jet pilot and his family. As in Conroy's previous books, the male characters battle with the role society demands they play. While Bull Meecham isn't Conroy's usual "southern" male (he's originally and proudly from Chicago), he is a son of one of the strongest "machismo" organizations in our country - the U.S. Marines. And Bull is a GREAT Marine - he's strict; he's tough; he follows orders and gives orders; and above all, Bull's always out to win. But these characteristics that make a great Marine, don't necessarily make a great family man.

Bull is married to Lillian, the ultimate southern "lady." Conroy's southern "ladies" usually prefer to hide issues going on in the family and pretend as though nothing is wrong. Lillian follows that prototype. So, when the alcoholic macho Marine and the southern "lady" combine, the sparks must escape somewhere, and that somewhere is through their children.

Ben and Mary Ann are the two oldest Meecham children. They are battling to find their identity in a truly "dysfunctional" environment. But, as with Conroy's other novels, this story is not as simple as good and bad. Life never is that simple. Most of Bull's behavior towards his family seems "bad", destructive. And Lillian continues to tolerate it and stay. But both parents desperately love their children, their family. The reader sees this in various places throughout the novel: Bull buying roses for Mary Ann; Lillian cheering Ben to a basketball victory over Bull. They are just stuck in the dilemma that our society has created - the characteristics of a good Marine are not those of a good father; the characteristics of a fine southern "lady" don't allow her to admit problems and seek help outside the family.

One of the most poignant points in the novel for me was when Bull returned home late and drunk. A fight broke out between Lillian and Bull, and he began hitting her. All the children rushed down except Ben (the oldest). Ben wished that Lillian would just avoid the confrontation, not provoke it. But he relents and goes down to trade places with Lillian and become the target of his father's aggression. Eventually Bull storms out of the house. When he doesn't return, Lillian sends Ben out to find him. When Ben does find Bull, he tells his father that the loves him. Bull's response is to run away from Ben. I think this episode illustrates Conroy's theme more than anything. While Lillian has just been abused by her husband, she still fears for his safety and desires his return to the home. Bull fears the love of his family and possibly not being able to live up to that love so he runs from it. And Ben is constantly torn between these two; he loves his parents, despite his desire not to.

While Ben is often the center of attention in the family, Mary Ann feels overlooked - invisible. She doesn't believe she can live up to her mother's beauty, and she cannot have the attention from her father that Ben receives because Ben is the "sports star" and the oldest boy. So she reverts to schemes that earn her negative attention. After all, negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Conroy's characters are so rich, so true to life, you can imagine them in people you know...maybe even in yourself. But more than anything, these characters make you look beyond the surface. You see what makes them tick and your realize that it isn't as simple as either liking or disliking the character. They are too real for that!


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