Pat Conroy will be signing his new book in Beaufort Sunday, and the line will probably stretch to Pritchardville.
“The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son” already has Conroy dashing to different microphones and signing tables in a different city every day.
But this is home.
Conroy will see many familiar faces at the independent Beaufort Bookstore, which Wilson McIntosh has somehow kept alive for 28 years.
The book is a raw memoir of an uneasy life. It follows Conroy’s jarring 1976 novel and 1979 movie about his abusive Marine Corps fighter pilot father, “The Great Santini.”
This time, Beaufort residents will see a lot of familiar names in print.
Bernie Schein is in the book.
Bernie likes to tell people he actually wrote every word published under Conroy’s name. When Conroy got a call from Barbra Streisand about making his novel “The Prince of Tides” into a movie, Conroy hung up on her, thinking it was one of Bernie’s pranks.
Now we have a new problem. Who should play Bernie if this one goes to the big screen: Leonardo DiCaprio or Ryan Gosling?
Conroy, who just turned 68, and Bernie joyously dissect mankind as they sit on the balcony off Conroy’s master bedroom, puff cigars and gaze over the marshes of Battery Creek. They have been friends since the merchant’s son and the military brat played basketball for the Beaufort High Tidal Wave in the early 1960s.
That was when America was being led to believe families look like Ward, June and the Beav. But Conroy secretly knew better.
Home is where Conroy’s tell-all books have helped others acknowledge that to some degree we all have bats in our belfries. It’s where we clutch each new book and, as Southern as grits, say, “Pat Conroy may be nutty, but he’s OUR nut.”
Here’s my tell-all about Pat Conroy.
When we met, I expected to find him either too busy to be bothered or huddled in the corner in the fetal position.
But I found humor and warmth where I expected weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I found a cozy home with artwork on the front porch, fat leather chairs and a thousand books to choose from. It even has a room with stacks, like a library. His third wife is so charming I told her she must have met Pat in a dark room. Cassandra King also has a new book out called “Moonrise,” and also has a national following. Actually, they met at a dark time, and began this hopeful chapter of their lives together with marriage shortly after the death of the Great Santini.
Both have been generous to me with their time, and lavish with personal, kind words.
I’ve watched Pat Conroy give and give and give to younger writers. He is a prolific genius with book-jacket blurbs that get them notice and sales. When Teresa Bruce recently debuted “The Other Mother” about Beaufort dancer Byrne Miller, Conroy wrote: “Mark my words, Teresa Bruce will be one of the next great American authors.”
Bookstore owner Wilson McIntosh said Conroy’s generosity in signing even back-listed books has helped keep him in business. His recent “Evening with Pat Conroy” raised $30,000 for Beaufort’s performing arts center.
To encourage other South Carolina writers, Conroy has become the editor-at-large for a new imprint from the University of South Carolina Press called Story River Books, named for a river off Fripp Island. He also is judging a statewide writing contest for high school juniors and seniors.
Conroy wrote the foreword when Bernie and Martha Schein’s daughter, Maggie Schein, published a book of fables last year called “Lost Cantos of the Ouroboros Caves.” And he and Cassandra hosted a book-signing party for her in their home, where guests could see his father’s military medals in a shadow-box frame, sit at his writing desk filled with books, or muse at this needlepoint of an unusual home, sweet home:• “Because the Water is Wide,
• The Great Santini Took
• The Lords of Discipline
• To Visit the Prince of Tides
• And Listen to Beach Music.”
“The Death of Santini” brings us full circle.
Conroy’s dad is why he came here, why he needed Beaufort’s love, and why he has wrestled with his sanity and even suicide.
But a lot has happened since the forbidden tale of the “The Great Santini” ripped through the Conroy family, opening wounds like the tea glass young Pat’s father hurled at him.
We saw a hint of change in 1989 when Col. Donald Conroy died at age 77 and was buried in the Beaufort National Cemetery. The first-born son who hated his father from the cradle delivered the eulogy.
“The children of fighter pilots tell different stories than other kids do,” Pat Conroy began.
“None of our fathers can write a will or sell a life insurance policy or fill out a prescription or administer a flu shot or explain what a poet meant. We tell of fathers who land on aircraft carriers at pitch-black night with the wind howling out of the China Sea.”
It is fitting that Conroy will sign this book in Beaufort as the Marine Corps celebrates its 238th birthday, fighter pilots still roar as specks above the clouds, the tat-tat-tat from the rifle range at Parris Island echoes across the sound, and the nation pauses for Veterans Day.
“We tell of men who made widows of the wives of our nations’ enemies and who made orphans out of all their children,” Conroy said in his eulogy.
“You don’t like war or violence? Or napalm? Or rockets? Or cannons or death rained down from the sky?
“Then let’s talk about your fathers, not ours. When we talk about the aviators who raised us and the Marines who loved us, we can look you in the eye and say, ‘You would not like to have been America’s enemies when our fathers passed overhead.’
“We were raised by the men who made the United States of America the safest country on earth in the bloodiest century in all recorded history.
“Your fathers made communities like Beaufort decent and prosperous and functional; our fathers made the world safe for democracy.”
It’s a peculiarly Beaufort story. And it’s all in the book.