In reading Pat Conroy's latest book, The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son, I was struck by two very strong facts. First, Conroy's writing can often be florid, sometimes overblown, and his books can have a certain narrative sprawl to them. Second, I like him, and them. Even Conroy writing below his best (among which I must class South of Broad), I nonetheless find much to enjoy.
I think what I enjoy most about Conroy is his gift for capturing the horrible, but undeniable comedy that can arise out of the most tragic occurrences of life--I remember reading The Prince of Tides on the subway one day, and hit a passage at which the narrator sarcastically sums up all the wild improbabilities of the overall plot to date, and laughing so hard that I was gasping for breath. Literally. On a second read, yet--I had hit that exact moment before, the first time I read it--and it was still just as damn funny the second time around. And without cheapening the tragedies encapsulated in the jibe--the humor and the tragedy played off each other in counterpoint.
There's a through-line in Conroy's writing to the Southern Gothic--the overblown, slightly decadent writing that can become just too much, and tremble on the verge of self-parody. So, in terms of his literary style, what I love most about Conroy is his keen awareness of that line, and how, as he approaches it, he makes the humor fit the events he portrays. It's a real, felt response to the circumstances. And so Conroy often manages to successfully have his cake and eat it too--in an ironic age, he beats us to the laugh, and makes it not ironic, but real. His humor passes the Jillsy Sloper test proposed by John Irving long ago; it works because its true to felt experience.
The Death of Santini is not a novel but memoir, and in it Conroy is trying to finally lay the ghosts that have haunted his fiction, and his life. I don't know if he has succeeded in those ends, of course; only he will know that. But he has written a fine book, one that is both harder and more forgiving than his earlier books, and I am glad to have read it.