By September 8, 2012 1 Comments Read More →

Revisiting The Great Santini

I saw the movie of The Great Santini years ago. Robert Duvall gives a bravura performance as the title character–well, the self-provided alter ego of the title character– Marine pilot “Bull” Meecham. Several scenes are still extremely memorable to me, such as the one where Bull, in a rage because his son Ben has beaten him in a game of one-on-one basketball, begins to harangue, then physically attack the boy. I grew up around a few fathers who had this kind of competition with their sons (not my own, he was a gentle, wonderful man), and on a few occasions saw it flare into actual abuse, so the similar scenes in the movie truly scare me.

Ages ago I read and enjoyed Conroy’s memoir about teaching, The Water Is Wide, but never one of his novels. Returning to the source of the movie that fascinated me seemed like a logical choice. I was surprised to discover that the book is about the rest of the family as much as it is about Bull. In fact, by the end, son Ben has emerged as the true protagonist. Conroy does several things very well here. First, he gives the reader the strong sense of what life would be like in a family that moves often and is dominated, even terrorized, by an extreme alpha-male as a father. Wife Lillian and the four kids alternate between walking on eggshells around Bull and throwing themselves with enthusiasm into his schemes in an attempt to curry favor or at least avoid his wrath. Bull’s steady stream of “advice,” actually know-it-all bossiness and emotional abuse, is the soundtrack for every minute of their home life. In some ways, they copy him, learning to talk in his exaggerated way, or respond to his taunts with trash talk of their own, but they never know when he’ll take true offense and punish or hit them instead of insulting them back.

The second thing that Conroy does well is show what it is like to live in a small southern town. Although time has passed this version of our culture by to some degree, he captures life in the sixties and seventies well. The novel reads almost like a collection of linked stories, in that major events occur in many chapters that then aren’t integrated much into later events. Whether it’s a scene of extreme abuse, a rape, or a murder, it will frighten you in one chapter, then quietly disappear from further events. While this can be disconcerting, Conroy often makes it work to keep his story moving and to keep the darkness in the book from overwhelming the light. In a piecemeal way, he sketches in the details of life in the South, a place where humor and violence, stupidity and wiliness, chivalry and sexism exist in edgy equilibrium.

Conroy’s third achievement are his characters. Ben is a bit of a goody two-shoes, perhaps hard to believe until you come to understand that his goodness is his way of rebelling against his father. Sister Mary Anne is tough, sassy, and thoroughly depressed. Mother Lillian lives in a bit of a fantasy world, but she holds her family together by bringing that fantasy to life as much as she possibly can. Ultimately, Conroy gets inside his men more than his women, and I was left wanting to know more about Lillian and Mary Anne and how they would turn out, but all of his characters are three-dimensional.

Finally, Conroy’s last intention in the novel is to make readers admire Bull Meecham as much as they despise him. On this count, I don’t know if he succeeds, although it may not be his fault. Cultural mores have shifted since 1976 when this first novel was published, and I’m not sure the world has much admiration left for overbearing, abusive men who want to cast themselves as iconoclastic heroes, turn their families into cannon fodder in an army where they serve as general. Maybe some will still disagree, but to me, Bull’s just a hot mess, an alcoholic and a bully. I think it’s progress that he’s hard for a reader to find admirable. In the end, this is a book that will stay with me even more than the movie, and I’ve decided I need to give more Pat Conroy titles a reading.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "Revisiting The Great Santini"

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  1. rlynnwilson2011@gmail.com' Ricki Wilson says:

    Many people choose THE PRINCE OF TIDES as their favorite Conroy, and rightly so, as it is spectacular, but for me, BEACH MUSIC is incomparible. This novel just sweeps me away. Conroy is a master of beautiful language.

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