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Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Great Pat Conroy Is Dead, Damn it.

The Great Pat Conroy is dead and I am so sad. I never met him face to face, but we had a lovely long talk on the phone. He was generous  and funny and warm and kind. I always hoped I'd meet him. And now he's gone. 

The story is this: I was rereading and analyzing the structure of The Prince of Tides. You know, that two-lane structure of Tom Wingo present and Wingo family past, as this man struggles to cope with the angst of his crazy childhood and destructive, destroyed family. 

I had just bought it used, the best copy I could find. I stopped at a Staples store in Venice, CA. There was a guy who worked there, a tall man, middle-aged, with glistening black skin and the musical lilt of the French Congo. He teased me when he saw the book cover, which verged on soft-core porn. "Oh, you are reading one of those bodice-rippers," he said in the wider vowels of his African-French. 

So, I opened the book and read him those first pages where Tom Wingo introduces us to his beloved South Carolina tidal country: “My wound is my geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call. 
       "I grew up slowly beside the tides and the marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on a shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I and killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family's table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders. . . 

". . .When I was ten, I killed a bald eagle for pleasure, for the singularity of the cat, despite the divine, exhilarating beauty of its solitary flight over schools of whiting. It was the only thing I had ever killed that I had never seen before. After my father beat me for breaking the law and for killing the last eagle in Colleton County, he made me build a fire, dress the bird, and eat its flesh as tears rolled down my face. Then he turned me over to Sheriff Benson, who locked me in a cell for over an hour. My father took the feathers and made a crude Indian headdress for me to wear to school. He believed in the expiation of sin. I wore the headdress for weeks until it began to disintegrate feather by feather. Those feathers trailed me in the hallways of school as though I wore a molting, discredited angel."

"That boy is me," said my friend from Congo, "And  that man is my father. That is me growing up in the Congo." 

"That boy is me," I said. "And that man is my mother. That is me growing up in the Midwest." 
I gave him my copy of the book and went back to get another one, with, if possible, an even more sleazy cover. I wrote all over it, trying to figure out how Conroy had done it, and then I wrote to him, because I figured that he should know how much he had moved my Republic of Congo friend and I. 

I couldn't figure out where to send the thank you note, so I addressed it to Pat Conroy, Beaufort, South Carolina. I figured the postman would know who he was. 

I was right. About two months later, the phone rang. It was a message from Mr.  Conroy, calling to thank me for the letter--the wonderful letter that had moved him so deeply he had to call and say thank you back to me. 

And I wasn't home. All I had was a recording. I wanted to talk to him, to ask him how he'd been so brave, how he'd risked writing the truth of his childhood. I wanted to know where he'd gotten the guts. From Tom Wingo's father? His mother? From eating that damned bald eagle? 

So, I wrote him again (Pat Conroy, Beaufort, South Carolina.) And he called again. This time, he left a number. I returned his call and we talked for a couple of hours, about life and writing and how dangerous it was to tell the truth; and how sometimes, you simply must. He promised to read my novel when I finished it. I never could finish it. Maybe I didn't have his courage. I set it aside and started work on something else, something where my family's secrets could be explored under cover. What I wrote was less that first novelist's spewing pain onto the page. It was probably more mature. That was The One And Holy Skillet, which I never had the courage to send him--it just wasn't as bold a book. Even without him, it did almost sell (see my blog post about Leona Nevler.) Someday, I know it will be published and I'm sure it will do well. 

And of course, I lived my life. I had some kids, I survived some stuff,  and I worked like crazy on another novel that I think is fine, more than fine, something that I think he would have loved, though it's about not only the immediacy of family, but the immediacy of the connections within the human family. It's The Color of Safety, about a hundred years of African-American history paralleled with sixty years of the Eastern-European Jewish experience as told through the inhabitants of one house in Los Angeles. I was about to write him again, though I wasn't sure if he'd feel the same connection to this, because it was as much about the human family as about the immediacy of family. 

If I'm honest with myself, having finished something was an excuse, really, to talk with him again, that honest connection, soul to soul, with someone who had written his way through the tunnel of pain and come out, (I hoped) on the other side, though I had heard through a teacher who knew him that he struggled with both drinking and depression. 

I'm so glad, now, that I took the trouble to write the letter, to share that giant thank you moment with this great man. I knew Mr. Conroy had to hear how grand was his reach, how universal his story-telling. 

Good night, Mr. Conroy. I was fortunate to know you, even that little bit. I hope it was painless, and quick. I hope you had enough time to say your goodbyes. Goodbye. 

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