August 26, 2007
The Great Santini
The Great Santini by Pat Conroy
Finished on 8/20/07
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)
TBR Challenge #6
Southern Reading Challenge #3
The Astonishing Autobiographical Bestseller By The Author Of Beach Music
Today his family would be called dysfunctional. Bull Meecham -- fighter pilot, warrior, juggler, clown and bully -- a hard-drinking terror of a man who calls himself The Great Santini -- actually hides behind his misnomer. His swaggering mask is all Marine, and entitles him to be the absolute ruler of his family, which he handles with all the tenderness and understanding of a drill sergeant shaping up a class of new recruits.
Bull's wife, Lillian, is a beautiful steel magnolia -- without her cool head and infinite patience, the family would fall apart. Ben, at eighteen the oldest of Bull and Lillian's three children, is a natural athlete whose best never satisfies his father. As Ben struggles to become his own man against the intimidation of his father, he's forced to stand up, even fight back, against a man who refuses to give in.
Bull Meecham is undoubtedly Pat Conroy's most explosive character -- a man you should hate, but a man you'll come to love, in this stingingly authentic production.
I never came to love Bull Meecham, but as the book drew to a close, I began to reconsider my initial opinion of the novel. While reading The Great Santini, I couldn't help but compare it to Beach Music, the only other work of Conroy's I've read. From my journal, dated September 1996, I wrote:
THE BEST! I think this has to be one of the very best books I've ever read. I couldn't put it down and didn't want it to end. I want to read everything Pat Conroy has ever written. He writes the most beautiful sentences I have ever read. I felt like I could see, hear, taste and smell everything he described. The characters became part of me. I laughed. I cried. What a beautiful, lyrical book. I recommend it to everyone!
So why did it take me 11 years to pick up another book by Conroy? Did I have some inkling that Beach Music was the best of lot?
Unfortunately, there's just no comparing The Great Santini to Beach Music. Instead of lyrical prose, I found verbosity. Rather than endearing and memorable characters such as Jack McCall and his mother Lucy, I found nothing but crude vulgarity in Bull. The long, drawn out details of several basketball games grew tiresome, whereas the lush details of Italy and South Carolina drew me in to worlds I've come to long for even after all these years.
When asked to name my favorite books, Beach Music immediately springs to mind with no hesitation. I've wanted to read it again, yet fear it won't live up to that magic one feels when reading a gem for the first time. I had hoped to capture that feeling once again when I picked up The Great Santini. Sadly, I was disappointed. My first inclination was to say this is an awful book. However, looking back I think Conroy is superb storyteller. He created a realistic family and a believable character in Bull, who was a dispicable father, husband and human being, and I cringed at his words as often as his actions. I held my breath, hoping for a better outcome, wrapped up in Ben's world and desire to simply make his father proud.
I've wrestled with my reaction to this novel, wondering why I hesitate to recommend it or give it a higher rating. I think it boils down to the disturbing nature of the story. Sure, I've read upsetting novels that I've loved and gone on to rave about to anyone who'll listen (The Book Thief is the first that comes to mind), but this is a portrait of a family (albeit a dysfunctional family), and we all have families. As children, we desire our parents' love and approval and as parents we teach and guide our children while providing them with love and assurance. I know what family is, whereas the terrors of war are distant and somewhat removed from my daily life. I can read a book such as The Book Thief and appreciate the harrowing tale of the Holocaust, yet still love the story. In reading The Great Santini, I felt nothing but disgust for the chauvanistic bully and bigot portrayed by Bull Meecham. That disgust interfered with my overall appreciation of the narrative, but not so much that I couldn't finish. And there were, afterall, beautiful passages sprinkled here and there.
A favorite passage:
The next day Ben received a phone call from a Coach Murphy who said he heard from some of his players that the Arlington Jaycees had cut one hell of a baseball player and that he would consider it a personal favor if Ben would come play for his team. That was the beginning. And as Ben walked along the edge of the salt river, he realized that he wore the memory of Dave Murphy like a chain and it carried him like a prisoner to the infields of Four Mile Run Park in Arlington, Virginia, where he played for the Old Dominion Kiwanis for two of the best years of his life. In the night games, beneath the arc of lights, in his last year of Little league, Ben's new spikes gleamed like teeth as he walked toward Dave Murphy. For years Ben had walked toward him in dreams and sudden thoughts. If he could, Ben would have told him about the soft places a boy reserves for his first coach, his unruined father who enters the grassless practice fields of boyhood like a priest at the end of life. Coach Murphy was gentle. Yes, that was it. Gentle to the clumsy, girl-voiced boys whom he trained to be average, to be adequate, as he hit the soft fungoes to the outfield green. But Dave Murphy had a gift. Any boy who came to him had moments of feeling like a king. Any boy who played for the Old Dominion Kiwanis. Any boy. Coach Murphy still haunts the old fields where his boys bunted down the line, and with graceless fever took infield in voices that cried out for fathers. Going home after practice, they waved good-bye to their coach as they slid their spikes on the sidewalk, astonished at the fire that sprang from their feet. Then they turned toward home, toward the real fathers who waited for their sons to come homeward disguised as heroes.
Hmmm. Perhaps I would've found more to love had The Great Santini been about baseball (which lends itself to poetic prose, not to mention my love for the game) rather than basketball.
The Great Santini is a work of fiction, but how much is really a retelling of Conroy's own childhood? I'll have to give My Losing Season a read and compare details. I've had an Advanced Reader's Copy in my stacks for close to five years. Now I'm eager to give it a read.
Go here for more on Pat Conroy, the author, the man and the child.