In Memory of Pat Conroy, the Saddest Story Teller

Pat Conroy died on Saturday. To some of you that name might ring a bell. To many it won’t. Conroy was an author of some note with best sellers such as The Great Santini and Prince of Tides and as such he is worthy of memory.

But Conroy was more than a mere author; he was a tortured soul trying to come to terms with his past and his personal demons. Without ever having met the man I know this to be true because he wrote it into his stories. He wrote about himself and his family. He wrote about pain, but more than that he wrote from pain.

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I first encountered Conroy because I heard him mentioned on a radio show and checked out Lords of Discipline from the library. I read many novels. I love stories. I read trite, silly novels and heavy, heady ones. I try to appreciate each for its merit, to enjoy the light and the substantial alike. But this one – this one was like watching Mike Tyson fight for the first time. Just raw and powerful and intimidating and scintillating and a barbaric and unlike anything I’d come across.

He wrote angrily, but beautifully. He wasn’t technically perfect, but his stories had gravitational pull. He was master of dark humor, a favorite of mine. I moved on quickly from Lords of Discipline to The Great Santini, the thinly veiled story of Conroy’s own upbringing under the iron rule of an abusive Marine pilot. From there I consumed his other novels and was left feeling like I’d eaten a pile of the best Chinese takeout – a mouth of flavor, happy, full, and with an unfulfilled appetite.

I wanted more novels from Conroy. He wasn’t a John Grisham or Lee child who cranked a novel per year. He only wrote a few.

But I wanted more from the novels he did write. Conroy left the reader empty, but beautifully so. He wrote the dark and the unpleasant and the truly sad. And he offered little consolation. He offered man’s best efforts at happiness and love. In short he wrote his heart into his books, and his heart was sad and angry and loving and expressive.

If you are looking for a To Kill a Mockingbird or Peace Like a River kind of wholesome, rich novel Conroy’s aren’t it. His are a glimpse into the true state of the striving human mind and heart, the pursuit of happiness and quest for fulfillment. He shows how pain breaks people down and becomes a life-long haunting enemy. And he shows glimpses of the happiness and joy that can be found, ever so fleetingly, in a hurting life.

Conroy’s books are not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart. They don’t promote a world-view a Christian should love or embrace. But that’s precisely why they need reading. They are true to life, true to experience, true to the emptiness all around us. I am sad I will never get to read new words from Pat Conroy. I am sad his current work will never be completed. He shared something profound with me, with all his readers. And he deserves to be remembered.