"Stand by for a Fighter Pilot": A Review of Pat Conroy's "The Death of Santini"

Hanna Lafferty / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer ’16

The Death of Santini cover art via of bluebicyclebooks.com.
The Death of Santini cover art via of bluebicyclebooks.com.
Pat Conroy’s literary career has spanned over four decades, with ten novels and two movies inspired by them. In The Death of Santini, Conroy explores his relationship with his Marine fighter pilot father, Donald Patrick Conroy, whose fierce, proud nature and abusive ways became the inspiration for Conroy’s most famous parental character, Bull Meecham in The Great Santini.
Conroy, featured in the cover image of the article, labels this memoir “The Story of a Father and His Son.” However, his latest novel is more of a conglomeration of various anecdotes from his life with his father, mother, and their families. The Death of Santini is not only about Conroy coming to terms with his father but also accepting the various quirks of his other relations. Conroy explores the different psyches of his mother and father while also exploring how each one became twisted through their own familial trials. He uses The Death of Santini as a way to expose the true personalities that inspired the varied and colorful characters of his previous novels.
While Conroy’s portrait of his family is fascinating in its gallows humor and rife with tension, it also carries the weight of each tale in its prose. At times, the memoir will drag with the author’s disingenuous ideas about his “brother- and sister-writers”, his brush with social justice and his distant family’s vibrant history. However, Conroy is still able to connect these brief moments with his growing self-awareness of the legacy his father left behind and in the tender moments that he and his father became privy too after Conroy reached adulthood. There are moments during Conroy’s remembered bits of dialogue with each of his immediate family members that at times feel contrived though the siblings’ insolent banter with each other and their antics during the very public funerals provide a small respite from the overarching tragedy of Pat and Don Conroy’s fractured relationship.
Each family member has a part to play in the redemption and death of Conroy’s father, The Great Santini. Conroy easily fits his siblings into these roles as either caregivers or fire-starters but the portrait of intellect and madness that Conroy paints over the entire family leads to a deeper understanding between not only Conroy and his father but also between Don Conroy and his other children. Through Conroy’s discovery of the softer side to his father by witnessing moments of emotions that would have been unthinkable from the rough fighter pilot of his childhood, he is able not only to reconcile with his father but also with the legacy of violence that he bestowed upon him.
At moments plodding, Pat Conroy has nonetheless created a fascinating collection of family memory and mythos that leads the reader down his path towards some of his most famous novels. Each pained tale is told with a smattering of satire and a much wiser eye towards the motivations of the father, which have now been passed along to the son. At long last, Conroy has put the Great Santini to rest.

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