Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

The Great Santini is Pat Conroy's novel about growing up in a Marine fighter pilot's household.  Conroy grew up in such a household, he and his six siblings moving frequently following his father from military post to military post. 

Bull Meecham is the epitome of a Marine fighter pilot.  He is the best flyer, the loudest voiced, the biggest drinker, the quickest to start and finish a fight.  He rules his squadron and his family by sheer force of personality and by his willingness to use his fists whenever he is crossed.  He brooks no resistance from his lovely Southern wife, Lillian, and his four children. 

Ben is the oldest, a son who strives to be good at whatever he does.  He gets good grades, serves as an alter boy, is the best point guard his high school has ever seen.  Mary Ann is his closest sibling, a daughter with little social life due to the constant moves who finds refuge in her books.  Matt and Karen are young and follow their older siblings. 

Ben is caught in limbo.  His father wants him to be a tough, Yankee Marine and someday be a fighter pilot.  He doesn't even consider another future for his son.  His mother wants him to be a Southern gentleman and spends her time trying to mold him into that.  He loves his father and hates him in equal parts.  He admires Bull's accomplishments and knows he can go to him in any emergency for help, but hates the way Bull is quick with his fists to his wife and family, and quick to humiliate his children to enforce his rules.  The book covers Ben's senior year in a new town.  He makes some friends with the local boys, mainly through sports, and with the son of their maid, who introduces Ben to the countryside and the local fishing.  Throughout the year, Ben tries to discover what he wants out of life and how to carve out space for himself when living with a larger than life figure.

I avoided this book for years, even though Pat Conroy is one of my favorite authors.  I was afraid of the emotions he would uncover and how I would react to the story.  I can't think of anyone who writes better about the South and what it means to be born and grow up there.  His strength is writing about dysfunctional families and how they love each other through the tears.  Bull Meecham is like many of the fathers I knew growing up, and like my father in ways.  My father was the high school principal and few would cross him, although his was a quiet strength rather than an extroverted one like Meecham.  His word was law and his family did what he laid down first before considering what they wanted themselves.  Conroy knows and writes better about the father-son dynamic than any other writer I know.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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