The Great Santini
by Pat Conroy, Fiction (Released April, 1976)
Bottom Line: Read it.
Summary: Ben Meecham and his three siblings (Mary Anne, Karen, and Matt) grow up under the thumb of their larger than life, volatile fighter pilot father, Bull.
My Thoughts: I recently discovered that Conroy is writing a nonfiction memoir (The Death of Santini, due out in October) about his real-life relationship with his father, the inspiration for The Great Santini‘s Bull Meecham. I first read Santini in high school and remember loving it, but I didn’t remember enough detail to write about it for this site. And, I wanted to be up to snuff with my background to fully appreciate his upcoming memoir, so I thought it was high time for a re-read of one of my favorite authors! The first 2-3 chapters may be the best opening of a book in terms of character and story introduction that I’ve ever read. It perfectly sets up Bull’s crazy personality, his imposition of military structure on his home life and family, and, obviously, his temper. He also immediately comes across as funny and I can’t decide whether or not his humor is intentional. I chuckled out loud when Bull stands on the front steps of his house at 2 am, with his entire family loaded in the car ready to move to South Carolina, and yells “stand by for a fighter pilot”. I just pictured an overloaded Griswold family style station wagon almost dragging along the ground while Bull acts like he’s operating a high performance fighter jet in a war zone. Bull and Lillian (Mrs. Meecham) both ended up being much more complex characters than I remember from my initial read, or maybe I just view them differently now that I’m older. Bull has more likeable traits than I remember (he’s loved by many of his Marine Corps colleagues, he does sweet things for his wife and children, and he comes to the defense/rescue of his children in many cases) and Lillian is more dislikable than I remember. She outwardly appears to be a Saint and martyr for putting up with Bull, but she is actually a classic enabler, concerned more about appearances than the well being of her children. And, she constantly foregoes standing up for her children in favor of making excuses for Bull’s antics. I disliked Lillian more and more as the book went on and wound up wondering which personality type (Bull’s or Lillian’s) was worse. It was like Conroy was reading my mind because he has Ben and Mary Anne have this exact conversation towards the end of the book. He, of course, sums up the argument eloquently, saying “you always know where Dad stands and he knows where he stands, but no one will ever know where […] Darling Lillian stands, not even […] Darling Lillian. Mom can hurt people more with her piety than Dad can with his temper.”. Finally, Conroy hilariously skewers the Marine Corps (and military in general) and the Catholic Church, even comparing them to each other in a funny section of Bull’s thoughts while daydreaming in church. This is no doubt a heartbreaking book (even more so knowing much of the material came from Conroy’s real life) and it absolutely nails the conflicted feelings of having a horrifying, volatile, and sometimes abusive parent. And, as is the norm for Conroy, it’s beautifully written. I think Conroy could write about paint drying and I would love reading it! The Great Santini is going on my Book Club Recommendations and Books for Guys lists…and I highly recommend reading it (even a second time) if you want to be appropriately prepared for October’s The Death of Santini!
The Great Santini