Pat Conroy’s literary footprints meander deep into my past. Like tracks in fresh snow, I can trace the path back to my teen years, sitting in my room reading The Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini breathlessly.
I devoured The Water is Wide right before starting my teaching career. I swam in the prose of The Prince of Tides and Beach Music as an adult and later, as a veteran teacher and father, My Losing Season, South of Broad, and The Death of Santini sang to me with a chorus that was unsettling, uplifting, and familiar.
I met Pat Conroy when he spoke to Catholic High’s student body in 2003, a promise fulfilled to the deceased rector of the school, Fr. George Tribou. Conroy signed my books, asked meaningful questions about the school and my family, and, at an evening lecture, insisted on staying until the very last person left the auditorium at 11 p.m.
Conroy’s photograph, the original used for the back cover of My Losing Season, hangs in the school library as a gift from two alumni who happened on the photographer’s collection in New Orleans. Today, Conroy leans from that photograph into our sea of books, into the vault-like room where tapping keyboards and turning pages mingle in a spray of old versus new sounds.
He still speaks to the students, his voice lifted from those pages of required reading and into this young generation’s souls.
I would not walk across the street to see most Hollywood actors and would do so for only a handful of famous athletes. But … Pat Conroy. I’d give just about anything to have a conversation with him. Nothing could dampen my affection for him. Nothing, until I read Michael Mewshaw’s new book, The Lost Prince.
Mewshaw met Conroy in Rome when both lived and wrote there in the 1970s and ’80s. A solid friendship developed that would survive more than a decade before crashing into the mountainside of divorce.
In The Lost Prince, Mewshaw narrates his interaction with Pat Conroy using hilarious vignettes and detail that could come only from journals meticulously kept. They develop an envious friendship, one that was more fraternal than social, and their stories flowed easily.
Mewshaw is fine writer, even rivaling Conroy. Reading his sentences is like following switchbacks up a mountain: They travel through great beauty only to dive here and climb there on the way to the main point.
I didn’t want to read Mewshaw’s book at first. The Washington Post ran a review with an unflattering excerpt about Conroy, one that gave the book the feel of gossip.
But I picked up The Lost Prince because I felt that there must be something more than the tell-all that appeared in The Post. After a few pages, the friendship between the two hooked me along with Mewshaw’s good writing. Then I was rattled by illustrations of Conroy’s alcoholic behavior. Bouts with depression haunted him, and Mewshaw detailed those. And, Mewshaw writes, Conroy flat-out lied about many things.
Halfway through Mewshaw’s book, the bottom fell out when Conroy divorced his wife, Lenore, and Mewshaw was collateral damage. Conroy refused to speak to him because he believed Mewshaw sided with his ex-wife.
The Lost Prince then pieces together the author’s attempts to retrieve his once-brotherly friendship with Conroy. They did reconcile several years later to some degree, but nowhere near what it had been before. The end wraps it all together—life’s full circle—right up to the point of Conroy’s death from pancreatic cancer in March 2016.
Ididn’t know what to make of the book. It dented the image of my literary hero with stories of alcoholic binges, lies, and a mean streak, all traits I would never have guessed.
It’s difficult to see a hero humanized. It’s difficult to learn that people we wish to emulate have weaknesses and outright malfunctions. Then, realization kicks in—it’s in those shortcomings that we more easily relate. While perfection eludes every one of us, the falls from grace unite us.
We’re united in a need to be better, to do better, to try again.
Those without fault should cast the first stones. The rest of us will applaud those first shaky steps at overcoming regret, repairing damage, and moving forward into the light of forgiveness. Is there someone who cannot overcome his worst moments? Is there someone who is truly the sum of his worst mistakes?
Or maybe we are all journeying up Mewshaw’s switchbacks with dips and falls, climbs and successes, on the way to the point of our lives.
The Lost Prince is well written, well presented, and good. In the end, Mewshaw professes he loved Pat Conroy genuinely. I believe him.
I believe him because faults do not destroy true and abiding relationships. Faults fuel them because forgiveness is the essence of solidarity.
Pat Conroy remains a larger-than-life character for me. In humanizing him, it’s easy for me to treasure his words even more.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Print Headline: STEVE STRAESSLE: Hero and human