Pat Conroy’s books have four key factors in common. The first and most significant factor is his tendency to use autobiographical material. All writers write from their experiences, but Conroy is more direct than many in reproducing his dysfunctional family story over and over in different guises, so that his works of long fiction can almost be viewed as a generational saga with differing character names. Conroy is also much more frank with his readers in admitting this autobiographical focus and discussing his real family with unflinching honesty.
The reliance on personal narrative creates the second of Conroy’s common factors, the presence of dysfunctional families with hidden and painful secrets. Sometimes these secrets are fairly straightforward, such as physical and emotional abuse by fathers, and sometimes they are far more complicated, such as being raped by escaped convicts. In spite of this, mothers are usually positive figures in Conroy’s work, though his portrayal of them grows more nuanced in his later books.
A third factor important to Conroy’s novels is their setting in the American South. His major characters are all from the South or attached to the South in some way, and their subjective view of themselves as uniquely southern is critical to the novels. Conroy self-identifies as a southern writer, and he sees the American South as distinct from other regions in the United States. He maintains a modern sensibility, however, viewing this uniqueness as both positive and negative rather than as strictly sentimental, which was a common sensibility of earlier generations.
The fourth and final factor common to Conroy’s work—a concern with racial justice and the deleterious effects of racism on society—grows out of this clear-eyed modern view of the American South. Whether dealing with racism against African Americans or prejudice against Jews, Conroy brings concerns with social equality to the fore in most of his novels. His work is usually positive about the ability to overcome racial bigotry, showing a belief that humans can emerge from the bigotry and change, but only through much difficult effort.
The Great Santini
Conroy’s first novel, The Great Santini, establishes the pattern for all his major works. The coming-of-age tale centers on the main character, Ben Meecham, and his fractious relationship with his Marine pilot father, Bull Meecham. Bull calls himself the Great Santini as a way to boast of his prowess as both a fighter pilot and the patriarch of the Meecham clan. Bull runs both his Marine squadron and his household with an iron fist and uses frequent beatings and constant emotional bombardment to keep his wife and children in line. Ben, the eldest son, is the main target of his father’s rage, as he fails to live up to what Bull thinks a “man” should be. Ben’s mother, Lillian, is well aware of Bull’s abuses but does nothing to stop him or remove Ben from his presence. The setting and characters of this novel align neatly with Conroy’s own family and his senior year of high school in Beaufort, South Carolina.
The novel takes place during one year of Ben’s life, as he and the family once again attempt to get accustomed to a new town, this time Ravenel, which is in the Deep South. Ben is a basketball player who uses his athletic skills and winning personality to make new friends. Because of his love/hate relationship with his father, Ben is always seeking surrogates in the form of important older males who advise him and treat him with more dignity and respect than his own father. Coach Spinks serves this role, as does Toomer Smalls, who becomes Ben’s mentor even though he is African American.
Ben consistently fails to meet his father’s expectations and alternates between resignation and despair. When he becomes eighteen years old, he is given a flight jacket by his father, signifying his...
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- Critical Essays