The other day I posted on Twitter, “It is absolutely GORGEOUS outside in Augusta, Georgia!” Stu responded that that tweet put him in the mood to reread his Pat Conroy novels. I’d never read any Conroy, so I asked Stu for suggestions, and on his advice started reading The Great Santini. This post contains my thoughts so far; I’ve just made it to Chapter 12.
(Since I’m reading on my iPhone’s Kindle app, I can’t reference page numbers, so I will quote the text where appropriate.)
The book’s about a family dealing with an abusive father, a Marine fighter pilot named Bull Meecham who is known as “The Great Santini”. The prose simmers with nervous tension as it draws slowly towards what you know is coming, what has been foreshadowed from the beginning. You don’t see the abuse directly at first. You have to wait several chapters for it. Instead, you see almost-abuse. The story flirts with the line Bull Meecham will cross, and since you don’t know where the line actually is, you never know when something bad might happen. It’s very artfully done. It gives you the same feelings the children are dealing with.
The first horror is a fairly small one compared to the dreadful things Bull Meecham has been threatening. But that leads to some specific revelations that up the tension. It’s certainly not over yet. I’m curious as to where it will go and what conclusions will be drawn.
One thing that has struck me, though, is the somewhat uneven writing. At times Conroy’s prose shines, leaves me in awe. From the last paragraph of Chapter 9:
Here in the night [Ben] thought that somehow the secret of this marsh-haunted land resided in the quivering flesh of oysters, the rich-flavored meat of crabs, the limp of the flower boy, and the eggs of the great turtles that navigated toward their birthing sands through waters bright with the moon.
But other times Conroy does a little too much “tell” and not nearly enough “show”. There are even times when the perspective changes so abruptly that entire blocks of prose are cast in confusion, and I’m not sure that effect was intentional.
In Chapter 10, our third-person limited narrator brings us the basketball match between Bull and his son Ben through general descriptions of the action and glimpses into Ben’s thoughts. The entire chapter could be said to come from Ben’s perspective…save for an odd paragraph:
…Ben thought that he had a great equalizer working for him, called youth.
Ben was five feet ten inches tall and weighed 165 pounds; his father was six feet four inches tall and weighed 220 pounds. But Ben had been correct when he observed that Bull had thickened over the last years. He had become heavy in the thighs, stomach, and buttocks. The fast places had eroded. Rolls of fat encircled him and he wore the sweat suit to keep his new ballast unexposed. He was planning to lose weight anyway. There was nothing Bull Meecham hated worse than a fat Marine.
It took a long time for Bull to warm up and it gave Ben the chance to study his moves.
This sudden intrusion and just as sudden withdrawal of Bull’s perspective is extremely jarring. This isn’t the first time we see Bull’s thoughts, but it is the most awkward so far. If the text had continued in Bull’s perspective it would have been fine, but instead it snaps right back to Ben’s.
I considered whether or not that paragraph was Ben’s impression of his father’s thoughts, but it doesn’t really read that way–especially not the line “he was planning to lose weight anyway”.
Chapter 9 begins with a description of a woman who has come to the Meecham house. We do not see her thoughts. As if watching a movie, we read about how she arrives at dawn and waits. Then we see Bull Meecham run out the back door, and before we know it we’re in his mind.
The woman was sitting on the back steps when Bull Meecham hurried out the back door. He was on his way to the air station for additional briefings on the squadron he would soon command. Before he reached the first step, he stopped and regarded the dark Buddha blocking his passage. If there was a single group in America that Bull had difficulty with over the simplest forms of address, it was southern blacks. He had nothing at all to say to them so he generally retreated into his self-aggrandized mythology.
This paragraph should have stopped with the word “passage”. The last two sentences give us information, but not knowledge. They sound like a description Conroy might use in a character profile to remind himself how Bull should act. As I wrote on Twitter, it seems apologist. “Here’s why Bull’s acting like himself.”
We could understand these points about Bull by observing his actions. We don’t need to have it all spelled out.
And where is this commentary about Bull coming from, anyway? Our narrator sometimes has Ben’s observations, very rarely Bull’s or another character’s, and then sometimes, as now, a seemingly objective insight. The shifts are confusing and break the rhythm of the prose.
Just as we sometimes get too far into a character’s head or receive a bit too much spoon-feeding, sometimes we also don’t get enough description of the action of a scene. In Chapter 10, Bull says hurtful things to his children, but they don’t seem much different from the things he typically says, so when all of a sudden the kids are crying, I’m surprised. I could have used a few more details to ease the transition. Not an explanation of why being teased for being short would upset Matt, but an inkling of his mental state before and during the teasing. Was his face flushed? Did he look earnest when he was begging to be allowed to play basketball? Sometimes you have to read a little too far between the lines, and other times there’s nothing to read because it’s all overexplained.
Conroy shines when he’s presenting action and dialogue. One of the most powerful scenes, Ben’s talk with his mother in Chapter 11, includes very little description at all. There’s repetition of three themes–shoe tying and untying, cigarette lighting and smoking, and Bull’s basketball practice outside–and then there’s revelatory dialogue, evocative in its sarcastic directness. And that’s all that’s needed.
The best scenes with Bull don’t go into his head at all, but simply describe his behavior: Chapters 1 and 6, in which he gets up to no good in his natural habitat, give us far more insight into the man than a discussion of his history, pride, and competitiveness ever could.
The problems seem to crop up during critical scenes involving Bull’s abusive behavior–scenes between Bull and his children. I’m wondering if that’s the reason for it.
It’s known that this book is based on Conroy’s own childhood experiences. This sort of thing has got to be difficult to write about, especially when it’s happened to you. I’ve never been the victim of physical abuse, but I can relate in other ways. There’s a guilt and a shame that are extremely hard to get past.
It’s easier to deal with individual pieces of the puzzle than it is to attack the main problem all at once. That could explain why scenes involving Bull and Ben on their own are fantastic while scenes in which they interact are less so.
Were I Conroy’s editor, I would suggest not writing or appearing to write from Bull’s perspective at all. I’d treat all standard scenes as if I were an objective, non-omniscient observer, including scenes involving Bull. But I’d go into Ben’s head. The book may be called The Great Santini, but it’s about Ben. That was made obvious in Chapter 2. If Ben’s in a scene, I want to see the scene through him–and not through anyone else.
Those are my observations so far. Of course, I’m not done. We’ll have to see how my evaluation changes as I continue reading.