I confess: I am a literary romantic. I really want to believe that great writers live in a paradise of books, good music, poetry, and fine conversations with other literary people, punctuated by long periods of sitting in a perfect setting writing words that will last forever. Reading about literary greats punches gaping holes in that myth. All the way back to my high school days, I read biographies of writers. Some writers led incredibly dull lives that were tied mostly to them pecking away on typewriters or filling pages with ink. Others lived lives that were more adventurous and harrowing than their books. Hemingway was not a nice guy, although he might have been fun to go fishing with. Faulkner would not have been easy to sit around with and talk about literature, but that would not have been impossible. Robert Frost could be downright mean and devious. All too many writers were drunkards.
Pat Conroy was a man with real literary gifts. He could write prose that soared. Maybe more than most writers, his fiction was autobiographical. And then much of his autobiographical material was fictitious. He was outgoing, fun, generous, and loveable, but he was also morose, cruel, and mentally messed up. I tend to view his books overall as being good, but not great literature. He could weave a fine story. He could make a reader laugh, cry, and feel the stunning weight of beautiful language.
This past several months, I have occasion to read and write several times about Conroy. I read and loved the book Our Prince of Scribes which was compiled by a number of friends and fellow writers who shared memories of Conroy. More than any other writer I have read about, Conroy encouraged, promoted, and pushed other writers. He really loved helping others. More than most writers, he really loved his fans. Rather than eschewing crowds, he was empowered by them. He would sit and autograph books and listen to fans for hours. That is the Conroy man that I love.
I also read his posthumous book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life. Many of the essays were wonderful. This book is quite similar in approach to his book My Reading Life. Anyone wanting to enjoy books by a writer about reading and writing will enjoy these. I ran up and down our school hall shouting the day I realized that I had an autographed copy of My Reading Life.
The Lost Prince, published by Counterpoint, is by Michael Meshaw, who is also a writer and was a close, maybe even the best friend, of Conroy. This book is a delightful story in many ways about the ups and downs of the writing life. Both the Meshaws and the Conroys were living in Rome; both Mike and Pat (begging pardon for this informality) were working on novels; both found lots of similarities in their life experiences. However, Conroy was writing best-selling books that were being turned into movies while Meshaw’s works were less successful.
As always, Conroy was supportive of his friend. That sometimes meant Conroy would make use of contacts to help Meshaw or would lavish him with gifts. All this is the positive side of the friendship. These two guys really did have some heart-to-heart shared thoughts, experiences, and vision. But Pat Conroy was a combustible figure. Much of the book is about how Conroy’s marriage to Lenore (his second wife) bounced from battle to battle. Sometimes, the battles were with Lenore’s ex-husband, while often the conflicts were between Conroy and his wife.
Life in Rome was followed by times when the Conroys would move to Atlanta, Georgia or to California, or to Fripp Island in South Carolina. The Meshaws lived a similarly nomadic life. It is, once supposes, the nature of writers to be vagabonds in many cases. The friendship and comradeship would wax and wane for years, but after Conroy and Lenore divorced, the Meshaws were estranged from Pat.
This book is a sad reflection of a lost and never-ending painful separation. Granted, this is only Mike’s side of the story, but it seems that Pat was down-right cruel, manipulative, vindictive, and evil toward ex-friends and ex-family members. Added to that, Pat’s tendency toward alcoholism, toward suicidal thoughts, toward sadistic behavior compounded the problems.
In short, Pat Conroy didn’t mind living in fiction as well as writing it. It hurts to realize that the wonderful man described by friends in Our Prince of Scribes was also the mean man described by Mike Meshaw. This is a story of love and friendship, but, boy, it hurts.
Preaching is not always appreciated, but I will venture to preach a bit in closing. Pat Conroy needed to experience God’s grace. He had a horrific upbringing with an abusive father and a deceptive mother. He was a flawed human being. He could be brave and bold with a willingness to fight for right. But he never found the peace in his heart to deal with his past or to acknowledge his own sins to others. Since Michael Meshaw was not close by during Pat’s last days, perhaps there were reconciliations and repentances. One can only hope.
The lives of writers often fall short of their fiction. Perhaps the same can be said of those of us who are teachers, preachers, and people in other professions. It is the greatness of man interwoven with the flaws of man that keeps us searching and thinking. Only Jesus of Nazareth was perfect in every way. The rest of us, whether we are lost princes or lost serfs, are still lost and in need of something greater than mere human improvement.