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BOOK BIZ — Pat Conroy leaves us but his work lives on

BeachMusic_4CThe untimely death of writer Pat Conroy at age 70 leaves a gap in the list of contemporary Southern writers. Only recently did he reveal that he had pancreatic cancer. He leaves a large body of work, mostly fiction, that includes The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music and South of Broad. His work reached wider audiences when The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides were made into movies.

Detractors of Conroy felt his books were too long and too emotional, arguing that men, especially, would not show so much emotion. Of course these nay sayers are not Southerners or they would understand. In an interview years ago, Conroy explained that he felt if he could capture the spirit of Southern stories with all their angst and passion, then he could tell the stories of all human spirit. “And we Southerners are all story tellers,” he added.

When Pat Conroy is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the tortured family life he had growing up and the way it influenced his writing — thinly-disguised truth written as fiction.  Everyone knows of his abusive father, the Marine Corps pilot, and the emotional scars Pat Conroy and his siblings suffered. The Great Santini tells that story. The Prince of Tides is based on the mental illness suffered by one of his sisters. Beach Music is about his brother Tom’s suicide. “One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family,” Conroy told the writer John Berendt for a Vanity Fair profile in 1995. “I could not have been born into a better one. I don’t have to look very far for melodrama. It’s all right there.”

Conroy revealed his illness just last month in an online post which read, “I celebrated my 70th birthday in October and realized that I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don’t believe I’ve even come close. It was in Beaufort in sight of a river’s sinuous turn, and the movements of its dolphin-proud tides that I began to discover myself and where my life began at fifteen.”

It was clear that he loved the South Carolina lowlands in the Beaufort and Charleston area. Much of his writing reflects the beauty of the area and his reverence for it. His works also reflect his love of the English language and their power to convey stories full of feeling. Anyone who hasn’t read him can make that worthy discovery. How wonderful that he leaves this fine legacy.

— Lynn Lofton, mbj@msbusiness.com

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