Goodbye, Conrack

Standard seldom get emotional writing my little posts. In my creative process, most of what I’m going to say has been ground in the mill of my thoughts for hours or days maybe even weeks preceding my actually sitting down to write and in those times, the emotions come and tug and crush and draw their tears so once I sit down to churn out a post, I can do so relatively dry-eyed. I think it makes for better writing, but I may be wrong. In any event, my process deserted me this time. Three times since Friday I’ve sat down to write and three times I’ve had to leave my computer because the pain is just too raw. Today, I can finally make a go of it.

Pat Conroy, for years my favorite living author, died Friday, March 4, 2016 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. He took part of me with him.

Tolkien taught me as a child to lose myself in fantasy and flee the monsters I could not fight but those monsters could and would be dealt with by someone stronger. Thomas Wolfe taught me the anguish of loving a place and a people with such fervor and passion the thought of losing them becomes unbearable. They were the authors of my childhood and adolescence. Pat Conroy was the author of my adulthood. He had his own lesson to teach.

In the novels he wrote from his own anguished heart and guided by his own often brutal experiences, I learned the monsters pretty much always win while the people and places we love so much poison us all to death in the end . . . but the monsters still need to be fought and the people and places will have our love even as they destroy us in the process because they are so often one and the same — monstrous people and monstrous places we love dearly all the same. He taught me heartache, pain, and crushing loss are inevitable, but we must face them honorably come what may, preferably with a sardonic smile on our faces.

Mr. Conroy was the rebel I always wanted to be. He was an author who could manage to piss everyone around him off — his school, his erstwhile employers, even his immediate family — and eventually have them all embrace him for showing them the truth about themselves. He never shirked from a fight no matter what the odds. He was hard-drinking and fun-loving and he was the most Southern writer since Faulkner. I read and adored everything he wrote because in his work I saw a glimpse of what I could be if I could just stop worrying about what people think and tell the truth.

I had the pleasure to meet Mr. Conroy in person twice. The first time was at a book signing for Beach Music at the now defunct Open Book in Greenville. I’d just had my first run-in with the powers that be in a school district because I had the temerity to want to TEACH Beach Music to their precious youth group members and tarnish their tender and innocent ears. I actually got to tell him the story even as the line behind me started sending out for rope and torches. I told him I’d considered writing him for his help and advice. He smiled from beneath that unruly shock of white hair and said, “Son, if I’d have tried to help you, you’d have ended up fired and I’d have made the front page for all the wrong reasons . . . again!” Ironically enough, I would be fired from that job a few years later for somewhat different reasons.

The second time I met him was at the awards luncheon for the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. The conference was in Charleston that year and the scheduled speaker had called that morning to stand us up. Luckily, one of the librarians on the awards committee was a personal family friend of the Conroys so she called his home phone on Fripp Island. Not only was he home but he was delighted to come speak to a crowd of librarians on NO notice. He left home immediately and was the keynote speaker at lunchtime. Watching him spin story after encouraging story with nary a note, I saw what I wanted to be, what I could be, if only . . .

I’ve taken each of my signed first editions down from the bookshelf and thumbed through them. It’s a mark of how well-known my love of Conroy novels is that my first edition of The Prince of Tides was the first anniversary present Budge ever gave me. Now, he’s gone.

Conrack, Will McClean, Tom Wingo, Jack McCall . . . whatever he chose to call himself in what he was writing at the time, he always had a story to tell. It was often heartbreaking, usually brutally so, but told in such a way that one never knew if the tears were from the pain of the character or the glory of the writing. He will be missed.

Love y’all. Keep those feet clean.

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