Showing off the Citadel recently, Pat Conroy kept circling his alma mater, looking up at the looming water tower from different angles. "Somebody put my name up there and then painted one of those circles with a slash over it," he said. "I just wanted to see if it was still up there." Conroy ran afoul of the Charleston, S.C., military college in the late '90s when he supported the admission of female cadets. The rift has since been smoothed over so successfully that ex-cadet Conroy was asked to give the 2001 commencement address, and he revels in the fact that many cadets tell him that reading "The Lords of Discipline," his 1980 novel about the Citadel, persuaded them to apply. So why does he care if his name is still sullied on the water tower? "Hey, you got your name on a water tower," he says with a big grin, "you know you're still in the game."
Getting in the game--and staying there--remains the 56-year-old Conroy's defining characteristic. As a child he fought off his abusive father, the career Marine who served as the model for the roisterous bully in "The Great Santini." He was a basketball-team walk-on (no scholarship) as a freshman at the Citadel. By the time he became a senior, he was one of the starting five, and though only 5 feet 10, he averaged 12 points a game. After college he determined to make himself a writer, and he wears the extremely rare distinction of having supported himself with his writing all his adult life. His 1986 novel "The Prince of Tides" sold 5 million copies, and its successor, "Beach Music," sold a million. Conroy is even a competitive reader. He makes it a point to read 200 pages a day because, he says, "I always knew I couldn't match the education of the Ivy League, but maybe I could outread 'em."
Now, with his seventh book, a memoir about playing basketball for the Citadel, Conroy has joined all the strands of his life. Jock culture, the writing life and the pure hell of being Don Conroy's son all weave together in "My Losing Season." Like its maker, this tale is overweight and out of shape. You find clumsy writing on almost every page: "My memories of Sacred Heart shine in a pearly light; Gonzaga strikes far harsher chords." But just below that scrambled image, you find this evocative description of the Jesuit-run Gonzaga High: "The school taught Latin as though it was sorry it was not Greek, and Greek as though it was sorry it was not Mesopotamian." It's that way throughout, but the good always trumps the bad, because Conroy never stops trying to tell the truth. He's hard on his father and his college coach, but hardest on himself, calling himself a lousy athlete and a coward. Point guard Conroy didn't get many breaks in the games he played. He gets none in "My Losing Season." The result is harsh but beautiful, one of the very best books an ex-jock has ever written.
Writing is painful for Conroy, who says every book has left him spiraling into depression. "I started this book when I was suicidal," he says. "My second marriage was ending. I thought I'd never see my daughter again" after a brutal divorce fight. But while on tour to promote "Beach Music" in 1995, he kept running into old college teammates, and he discovered two things. First, they were all obsessed with that losing season of 1966-67. It was one of those weird years when talent never produced traction, when all the coach could do was scream, and "in the locker room," Conroy writes, "you felt everything except what it was like to be part of a team." As he listened to them resurrect their memories, he discovered something else: "That was the happiest year of my life." When he finished "My Losing Season," there was no depression. "Writing it was a great recovery for me. It was my coming to grips with that year, with the Citadel and, I think, my destiny." Before he hung up his jersey, Conroy had committed himself to being a writer.
Writing was not an acceptable career choice in the Conroy household. Don Conroy ridiculed it as unmanly and continued to sneer at his son long after he became a published novelist. Before he died in 1998, Don Conroy gave an interview to an Atlanta magazine, which asked who his son's readers were. "That's easy," he replied. "Psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women." But Conroy's mother had always had other plans for her oldest son. "My mother raised me to be the F--ing Southern Writer. It sounds ridiculous to say that, but she did. When I was 5, Dad was in Korea, and she read me 'Gone With the Wind.' And she'd say, 'Now, your dad is like Rhett Butler, and I'm like Scarlett O'Hara. And your aunt Helen is like Melanie, and your uncle Russ is...' And doing this, she made literature instantly alive for me. So other kids were trained to be doctors and lawyers. I was trained to be a Southern writer. Later I loved being called a Southern writer because I'd never had a home. We moved 23 times before I went to college."
Even as an adult, Conroy remained a rover. After college, he migrated from Charleston back to nearby Beaufort, where he'd gone to high school, then to Atlanta, San Francisco and Rome. But always in his fiction he kept circling back to South Carolina, the backdrop to those high-school and college years in which he found himself, first as an athlete, then as a writer. Ten years ago he returned for good, settling on Fripp Island, a tony coastal community near Beaufort. He married (for the third time), and he buried his parents in Beaufort's national cemetery, where fiction meets fact on Don Conroy's tombstone. It's engraved GREAT SANTINI. For once, Pat got the last word.
Not that the fight between father and son is ever over. "My Losing Season" is an agonizing battle with Don Conroy's ghost. "I took up basketball in part to get closer to Dad," Conroy says. "Clearly that didn't work." When the Citadel played East Carolina in 1967, his father showed up to watch him play for the first time in Pat's college career. When the Citadel lost, "he put me up against the wall and said, 'You're s--t. Your team's s--t. Your coach is s--t.' And that was all I could remember about that. It was so horrifying. I was stunned to find out I scored 25 points that game. When I wrote about that, I had to sit back and think, I had a father who couldn't be proud of his kid who scored 25 points in a college basketball game. I could do nothing to please him."
Don Conroy hated losers. His son embraces them. "Winning is wonderful in every respect," he writes in this book, but "loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass." This whole book is a love letter to losing and the lessons it teaches about friendship, courage, honesty and self-appraisal. Don Conroy would despise "My Losing Season." That's how good it is.