The Great Santini gained some notoriety at the time of its release as a novel. As various critics have noted, Pat Conroy’s father, Donald Conroy, had referred to himself as the Great Santini. Many of Bull Meecham’s mannerisms and favorite sayings are reminiscent of his father. The Great Santini is a novel that outpaces its biographical origins, however. Like other novels by Conroy, such as The Lords of Discipline (1980) and The Prince of Tides (1986), The Great Santini is in part the story of a young outsider attempting to find his way in the world; in Ben Meecham’s case, the path is most difficult, because in part it leads past his father, Bull.
In The Great Santini, the insignia for the 367th Marine Squadron is depicted as a drooling werewolf. This legendary beast, in a sense, serves as an appropriate symbol for the complex and enigmatic Bull. On the one hand, Bull is a family man who never thinks of betraying his wife and who is dedicated to serving his country. He is a devout Roman Catholic who ensures that his children receive the fundamentals of a religious education; he also is capable of acts of generosity and kindness, as is clear when he gives Ben his old leather flight jacket for his eighteenth birthday, and when he buys Mary Anne a gown and roses for her junior prom date with Ben. Like the werewolf, though, the father and family man is capable of losing control and becoming a kind of monster who will attack his wife and family; a man who will lose control because he is enraged that his seventeen-year-old son can beat him in basketball.
The outsider figure is central to the novel. All the younger Meechams are perennial outsiders, moving every year or two to a new school. Additionally, they are Catholics in a small town in which few people (other than those of the transitory Marine Corps families) are Catholic. Ben befriends his African American housekeeper’s son, Toomer, who is separated from the modern society...
(The entire section is 819 words.)