Many years ago, my friend, Laurie introduced me to The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy. I have adored her for many things, but that is probably one of the finest gifts she ever gave me. I still have that copy, with its grocery store sticker, outdated cover art, and yellowed pages. It is my favorite book, but she has labored all this time under the belief that she introduced me to my favorite writer. I hadn't the heart to tell her otherwise until now.
In truth, my introduction to Conroy came with a handsome boy in a green Jeep, roaring into our lives with a bright, easy smile and a pained heart. Travis came to us all in that summer as a means of escape, of distancing himself from his departure from the Naval Academy. Our friendship deepened through a summer of camp, and it was on one of those nights under a dark Texas sky that he brought to me the Lords of Discipline, by Pat Conroy.
I didn't read it then. Who can concentrate on plebe year and Hell Week and organized terror when there is fairy dust to be sprinkled and campfires to be lit and soft songs to be sung? I didn't understand what he thought I would find in those pages then, but I think I know now. I've read and re-read The Lords of Discipline at least a handful of times in the past 17 years, and each time I find something new to stir my anger and disgust and awe at the ways in which we carve away the innocence and sweetness of our boys in their journey to become a man. In reading this story, I wonder if I truly understood what had been taken from Trav. I wonder -- did he really see his arrival as an escape as I did? Or is that word mine alone? Travis gave me many gifts during our short but powerful friendship, but Conroy is perhaps the greatest of these.
I don't count Lords as one of my favorite Conroy stories although I appreciate it in the same way I appreciate The Great Santini -- as twisted and violent love letters to these sculptors of men. And even The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, my absolute favorites, leave me breathless, sullen, and bitter against the cruelties of the world. I often wonder why I subject myself to their angst so willingly.
I sometimes grow tired, reading his floating prose, and I'll silently wish for him to arrive at the damn point already. And then, there it is, landing gracefully upon the page, hidden by its own lush feathery words. Conroy both constantly belittles and celebrates his wordiness, treating his verbosity as a Siamese twin, at times awkward and cumbersome but necessary for his survival. I feel his struggle often. I have a love affair with adjectives and commas and extra conjunctions.
The man can craft a sentence that transports me to another world. He can sharpen an image that stops me dead in my tracks. I've studied his works and his life for years, trying to pinpoint why someone who writes with such pain and sorrow attracts me so -- especially since those are my most shameful captors. The only thing I can decide is that for Conroy, writing is a blood-letting. His genius lay in his catharsis; his fingerprints and tragedies can be found in all of his stories. He's said often that writing has brought him to the brink of madness on several occasions, and you can feel the teetering as his books near climax. But each time, he returns. He resumes. He revives. He finds scathing humor in his pain, unabashed love in his despair, and desperate beauty in his fear.
If that isn't hope, I don't know what is.
There is a part of me that collects his books and his words out of fear. There is great beauty, yes, but also the fear -- the knowledge -- that one day, his voice will stop. It's a silly fear, it seems, to not only grieve a stranger but also to grieve a stranger who is still alive. (But this is me, and you should all know that I fear the day your voices leave me too.) So you can imagine my surprise when I wandered through Half Price Books last week, looking to replace my copy of Beach Music (I constantly give my copies away), and found an unknown-to-me work by my shaper of words. It's a nonfiction piece, called My Reading Life. Within it are all of the people and circumstances that influenced his life as both reader and writer -- his mother, his teachers, his students, his idols. It has felt like a secret passageway into his art, and I have enjoyed its journey thus far.
Laurie predicted I'd finish it in the first night, and I thought she'd be right. I finished the first chapter in the parking lot of the bookstore. I haven't finished though; I've taken my time with this one, reading just a chapter or two a night. I'm 260 pages in, and now, the night before I have to go back and do real work, I feel the draw to stay up late by the lamplight and savor his thoughts. There have been many moments I've found myself holding my breath until the end of the sentence or the paragraph, and I find myself putting down the book and looking around for someone to share in it. But there's no one here, so for tonight, you will all do.
In his chapter, "The Teacher", about his high school English teacher, Gene Norris:
"His ex-students came back to his house by the hundreds and Gene delighted in the low-maintenance miracle of their return. He knew that they arrived at his doorstep of their own volition, and they came to thank him for honoring them and breaking into the immovable storms of aloneness in the hormonal tempests of their teenage year. Gene lived for these students who booked return passages into his life.... When one of his students died, Gene would never forget to cry. If there is a more important work than teaching, I hope to learn about it before I die." (p. 64-65)
On page 195, talking about the difficulty in beginning The Great Santini -- an autobiography of abuse hidden under the covers of fiction.
"I wrote about a military brat who'd spent his whole life smiling and pretending that he was the happiest part of a perfect, indivisible American family. I had no experience in writing down the graffiti left along the margins of a boy's ruined heart."
In remembering his encounter with a man on fire in the streets of Paris, a moment that forced him from his own cowardice to courage, putting out the fire and consequently saving the man's life:
"I had walked into one of those rare, elemental moment of definition when I would be a different human being from what I was ever meant to be. I was destined to meet the burning man on rue de Seine and my whole life had been leading up to that moment..."
He was convinced that this moment in Paris, where he'd gone to leech out the pain of his time at the Citadel through the composition of The Lords of Discipline, was a metaphor for his art. I think it's no coincidence that this happened in concurrence with the completion of that novel. It had taken immense bravery to take on his father, the Great Santini, but the long gray line was a different matter. If not for the burning man, would Travis had known him? Or, consequently, would I? I felt awful for the burning man, but also thankful for his sudden and transforming appearance, which may have altered so many lives, including my own.
Or on pages 257-258, discussing the visit that Mr. Norris took him on to the home of Thomas Wolfe:
"This is the room where Tom's brother Ben died. That's the bed where he died.... My teacher knew that the death of Ben Gant in Look Homeward, Angel had torn me apart, tamed something in me with its chilling finality, and taught me something permanent and fine about an artist turning the worst moment of his life into something sweetly beautiful. When I read about the death of Ben Gant, I was certain I could feel as much pain as Thomas Wolfe, but I was uncertain whether I could love with such unflinching, astonishing power.... I stared at the chair where Thomas Wolfe watched his brother die and I could barely contain my sorrow for the way the world cuts into us all by killing the softest of us first."
"I could barely contain my sorrow for the way the world cuts into us all by killing the softest of us first."
A finer, more glaring, example of one of the cruelest truths could not be found, and I think it must be the motivating force behind all of his art. In each of his novels, you can see his armor, but you can also still feel the soft spots. He is so human in his expression, so honest in his failings, that I don't know if his voice will ever truly die for me. But I certainly won't stop collecting it, and I won't let it stop urging me on to write out my own fear or heartache or joy. Words have such power, and I don't know that they are ever meant to be tamed. But I applaud those who attempt it, who suffer the sharp claws, and make way for those of us who aren't as skilled with the whip.
And that old friend, Travis? He wrote his own novel, The Joshua Requiem, which won the Benjamin Wofford Prize in 1997. If you read the linked article, you might recognize one of the panelists near the end. A full-circle moment with another man on fire. That book sits on the top of my bookshelf, flanked by my copies of The Prince of Tides and The Lords of Discipline, together as they should always be.
*If you're interested in borrowing My Reader's Life, check back tomorrow, I'm sure. Until then, enjoy one of my favorite pieces regarding the attempted censorship of two of his novels -- my favorites -- in a West Virginia school. A copy of the letter hangs in my classroom as a constant reminder of the power of both good teaching and the courage to stand up and be heard.