Looking back at a literary lion
Pat Conroy was competitively heroic.
Spoiler alert: He won.
Conroy was not just a North American magic realist writer — who could conjure the extraordinary from tigers and porpoise too — fecund pluff mud evident here in Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy is that he was himself capable of magic. This might seem like fiction, but isn’t it funny that this is also true.
So successfully heroic was he, that this collection invites contest, a bit of flirtatious jousting. Pat Conroy would have wanted that for his tribute’s review.
This assemblage of writing collects memories from the Greaties of the Greaty, borrowing here a Gullah phrase gleaned from Edward Ball’s Slave in the Family. “Greaty of the Greaty” Ed Ball is nicknamed, when searching for the surviving truths of what the Ball legacy rendered.
Each of Conroy’s greaties bestows Sunday Best. Not a lot of alcohol is served (especially at Jimmy Carter’s governor’s mansion, according to Anne Rivers Siddons, though there’s a bolt to the bar just after the dinner). And there is some interesting “shagging” with beautiful Barbra Streisand, who clarifies this as “shag dancing” and remembers a “hip-shaking hep cat,” “loose as a goose,” “could really fling that tush around.” Past that there’s not a lot of, as a first lady might put it, “Boy Talk.” There’s an overall sense of un-Conroy redact, courteous self-editing. I’m thinking these writers, perhaps thankfully, very politely, simply just left things out!
For an example of the Sunday Best stricture, in “Goodnight, Sweet Prince,” Alex Sanders — after precise and dazzling accounts of the real and true that became magnificent fiction in Prince of Tides — when reading aloud one of the novels most-memorized paragraph, he carefully elides one seminal word.
A paragraph forever worth re-reading: See if you can reclaim what’s missing:
I would like to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open an oyster with a pocketknife, and feed it to you from the shell and say, “There. There that taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.” I would say “Breathe deeply.” And you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life. The bold aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.
One more inside-publishing note: editor Jonathan Haupt’s introduction describes Conroy’s imprint Story River Books as “Pat’s tribe of writers.” Is “tribe” as cliquish sounding as “Fellowship of Southern Writers” (which Pat Conroy was not asked to join)? Founder Dr. Louis D. Rubin Jr. once confessed, that despite his nominating Conroy, the other fellows could not agree. Perhaps Pat Conroy was, beyond his years of helping others succeed, creating his own tribe. Tribes may be at the very least capable of producing severe social anxiety. What the hell do you have to do to be in this tribe?
But keep reading! The book is an absolute treasure. It has star power (musicians and actors), stage-crafted speeches, columnists (whose names you know), serious Beaufort history (maybe more for the locals), a cartoon, breezy anecdotes (from those who seem to rush off stage and not over-claim their connection), an attempt to rekindle a writer’s fight. There’s even a collectable pickled-shrimp recipe.
Caterers and award-winners alike were often not titled “writers” when they first met Pat Conroy. Pat was pivotal to their life’s story.
The shared experience here is that — with his hand in their becoming writers — there was a sense of divine intervention. As Patti Callahan Henry writes in “Sublimely Conroy,” his reaching out — when this happened, as it did for many in this book, when they were sick, in despair — felt like sublime intervention.
Crazy, dramatic things would transpire when Pat Conroy showed up.
Sometimes, by seeming chance, he’d intersect with stalking, determined-to-be-depressed, forlorn novelists. Also, talent-scouting editors, like Shannon Ravenel, who discovered Pat Conroy (signing him on and editing The Water is Wide) for Houghton Mifflin, according to a later editor, Jonathan Galassi in “A Few Corrections: Some Edited Memories of Pat.” According to Ravenel, who does not contribute to this collection, this is correct. “I called him when home on vacation,” she said, “but I can’t remember where I got his phone number.” She recalls, “He thought he’d have to pay Houghton Mifflin to publish his story of teaching on Daufuskie, since he’d self-published his first book, The Boo.”
Among the many uncanny anecdotes is Nikky Finney’s “In Walked Conrack.” Decades before poetry, like Head Off & Split, and a National Book Award, Finney guarded Prince of Tides from possible copy jams, feeding pages of a final draft into a monstrous machine at a copy shop near Emory University. Decades later, along a sidewalk in Columbia, a car stopped, a window rolled down, and the Prince of Scribes himself for the first time say: “Hi, Nikky.”
Many of the 71 greaties don’t seem to realize that reflexively they did something for Pat Conroy in letting themselves be inspired, out-right rescued, late-night phone-bombed from the electronic ID “Donald Conroy,” e-mailed from @atticus, flirted with, teased even, into finally publishing something — and then ultimately these achingly beautiful, 70th-birthday, and after-death-storm-soaked pieces.
It would be hard to choose which contributors to wish to attend a long-seated dinner. It would be a very large party, like the Roman wedding in Natalie Dupree’s “A Recipe for Tall Tales.” Maybe start with his brother, the poet Tim Conroy, author of “The Great Yes,” which is most intriguing; Great Yes, I’m hankering now for his poetry. Also, invite Alexia Jones Helsley, author of “A Boy, a Girl, and a Train” to hear more about the heart of gold prankster; yes, more on the high school years. And more from Sallie Ann Robinson, who tells of being a girl finally learning to swim in “Pat Conroy, My Teacher, and My Friend.”
Also, some of the wise-guy show-offs:
George Singleton’s “Free Uncontinental Breakfast” tells of Ron Rash, another “young” writer Pat Conroy would dub “Mr. Big,” wanly carving the title of his novel Serena into the sauce on his plate, while Conroy hovered. This is a slight, but perfect piece, and as funny as the throw-back travelogue, “In the Dom Rep with Conrack,” by bookselling buddy Cliff Graubart.
Walter Edgar, ever public-radio-reserved, surprises with “Not So-Secret Love Affair” he quotes a hot-and-bothersome passage from perhaps Conroy’s most panned book, South of Broad. Read it closely, though, remembering that Leo King is a character. Conroy is on purple-prose fire and after his death, doesn’t this warrant refracted re-reading:
I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I … hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures known as Charlestonians.
The introduction suggests a not incorrigible but complicated man. Only Steve Oney’s “Old Men and Young Bucks” digs in this direction. Oney, once cast a “defamer,” attempts to understand the psychology of his competitive nature, and his heroism. “Pat, of course, was one of the all-time umbrage takers in American literature.” His heroes frequently use grievance to uphold virtue (see Meechum, Ben in The Great Santini). By the same token they abhor piety, especially as embodied in institutions (see McLean, Will, in The Lords of Discipline).” See too, his drive for a first female cadet at The Citadel; his drive for real education on Daufuski; and his astonishing speech at Doug Marlette’s funeral. As told by cartoonist Andy Marlette in “Santini’s Son Was More Heroic Than Tragic,” Conroy called for the head of Allan Gurganus (the writer’s name omitted in this collection).
Anyone reading this review to the close may have their own Pat Conroy moments, now flushed out of memory. So, I’ll close with one of my own memories, which speaks to so much serendipity surrounding the photograph that’s on this book’s jacket.
The little known backstory, behind this singular image, is that photographer Andy Anderson had flown in from Utah to meet for the first time the man who had spoken to him through The Great Santini, a missile of a novel that has helped so many understand their father.
Photographer and subject, face-to-face, shared the same Irish physiognomy and body-build, masculine and imposing. In the author’s presence, within minutes, the photographer was puddling tears. They privately talked about fathers.
Pat’s wife, Cassandra King and I stepped outside the carriage house apartment behind Anne and Heyward Siddon’s house on Church Street, where the Conroy’s were staying, to get some air. Pat and Andy soon joined us.
As if on cue, out the second-story window next door waved Marty Whaley Adams Cornwell, “Hi, Pat.”
“Marty!” he said, so she could overhear, “I love that woman.”
The sun came out. Marty invited everyone over. The photographer took one look at Marty’s mother’s jewel-box garden, photographer nirvana. “Can we shoot here?” Tears dried, the large-format camera hoisted for a portrait. Next the big ask: Would Pat take off his shoes? I was terrified. Pat Conroy had done for me a magical favor in writing a spectacular piece, “The Lady and the Tiger” on the importance of keeping a journal, for the launch issue of Garden & Gun, magazine. He’d driven from Beaufort to Charleston for a photo shoot for an unheard of publication. Now, the big man was being asked to stand in a small pond.
But Pat gave the Big Yes. He stood in the shallows, seeming to walk on water, looking for all the world like he doesn’t know the number of his years.
Katharine Walton has worked as a competitive literary publicist, magazine writer, magazine editor and semi-professional tennis player; she grew up in the Lowcountry and now lives in North Carolina.