Author Pat Conroy died last week, a sentence which is almost more than I can bear to repeat. He was a Southerner’s writer, beginning to end. A true Carolinian (although he was born in Atlanta), he loved the mountains of North Carolina nearly as much as he loved his life among the islands of South Carolina, where he lived from the age of fifteen.
He was married 3 times, loved good food, drank too much, enjoyed sitting around telling stories and talking books. He wrote beautifully of place, time, and family. He was unafraid of the truth, risking ostracism from his people practically every time he published. His first wife’s family picketed signings for The Water is Wide, really one of the less revealing of his great books. Sound like a Southern writer to you? It does to me.
This is not a review of Conroy’s books. You can find those most anywhere online. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list. Instead, this post is meant to be an eulogy for the writer and the man himself. Consider it a kind of confession about how he reached in and touched my life at a time when I was picking up the pen seriously for the first time. Lucky for me, I read Prince of Tides first. When I finished, all I wanted was to be able to write a sentence like Pat Conroy. A single sentence, mind you, and I would be happy.
Now, I was a literature major in college. More, I was a bookseller for over 10 years. Plus, I’ve been a big reader all my life. I’ve read the writings of many, many excellent authors. Do not let my distinct preference for Southern writers fool you. I read a lot of Yankees, too. (smiling) But there is something about a writer who can speak with eloquence about your place and your people that simply resonates not only in your mind, but in your very bones. Pat Conroy was that kind of author.
He and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel kept me busy for the first couple of years I lived in Asheville; the years I began writing seriously. Although I wrote almost exclusively poetry at the time, their novels were written like prose poems–rife with sensual imagery, amazing characters, storytelling, and truth. These were attributes I wanted in my poetry. In the sense a poet can learn from great novelists, their language formed a basis for my own.
When Pat came to Asheville, he liked to hang out with Matt and Marsha Walpole, often among the shelves at Captain’s Book Shop. I heard him speak at a library event, I believe–you must know this was a long time ago–and he praised the teacher who had put Look Homeward Angel into his hands saying, “Here, read this, if you want to write.” He gave credit to that teacher and to Thomas Wolfe for teaching him to love the written word. Conroy’s teacher was in the auditorium, had come to hear him, and I remember Conroy called them up on stage and thanked them, thanked all teachers everywhere, for what they were trying to do for the students who sat in front of them every day.
I remember thinking, although he was gracious and funny, “Well, he’s not all that impressive to look at.” Then I thought about all the other Southern writers I had met, and reconsidered. He looked like most of them: overweight, gray and balding, and a bit harried. What he looked like was completely unimportant. He was as beautiful as his many works. Pat Conroy was exquisite, writing royalty, a prince among men.
Prince of Tides.