This month Bob reviews The Great Santini by Pat Conroy.
There are characters we love and there are characters we love to hate.
The Great Santini, i.e., Bull Meecham, a Marine Fighter pilot, may be the perfect hard-nosed, brave, single-minded man to have in the air over an enemy country, shooting down rival planes, dropping bombs on evil empires. But there’s a problem. World War II and Korea are behind him now, the fighting’s over and when he lands the plane he has to come home.
Home to a family he rules with an iron fist. Lillian, his beautiful Atlanta bred wife loves him, but lives to protect their kids from the oft violent, crude, rude, racist and socially unacceptable bull of a father.
When Lieutenant Colonel Meecham returns from that one-year tour in Europe the family—having lived comfortably with Lillian’s mother in Atlanta—is relocated to yet another marine base (they’ve lived in so many) and find themselves in Ravenel, South Carolina, where many adjustments must be made.
Lillian tells her oldest daughter, Mary Anne, how military families adjust,“Remember, darling, what I told you. If you have a lemon, make lemonade. You have to give a town a chance to grow on you. You have to open yourself up to a town. Be willing to take chances. You’ve been in the Corps long enough to know that.”
Santini is feeling the pressure of taking over a squadron of fighter pilots from the 367 who (orders from above) need shaping up. This is Lt. Colonel Meecham’s last chance to make Bird Colonel and Varney, his superior officer who is trying to make General, hates Bull Meecham but has signed off on him due to his ability to make men into flying machines. Again, Varney despises Santini. Santini broke his nose in a bar fight back when they were both lieutenants during WWII.
Santini, upon arrival at his new base, makes his case to his old friend Colonel Hedgepath.
Bull stood up and began pacing the room hitting his open hand with his left fist. : “That’s what I find hard to believe. Here I am one of the best f_____ing leaders in the Marine Corps. One of the best, Virge, and you know it. You could give me a platoon of Marines and I could make Harlem safe for white people in three days. Give me a squadron and I could turn Havana into a parking lot in a few hours. I’m good and I know I’m good and here I am a g----n light colonel while you and Varney are bird colonels. Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a bird, Virge, but you know what I’m saying.”
His friend Virge responds: “I think you’ve had trouble in the Corps, Bull, because you are just too modest about your abilities. You lack self-confidence and motivation. If you weren’t such a quiet, timid guy, Bull, I think you would do well when the promotion boards meet.”
So again, the Great Santini, a man who blurs the line between abuse and leadership with great ease is on a mission. And his family, his men, the community of Ravnel, nothing will stand in his way.
Ben, the oldest son and Conroy’s co-protagonist, is a gifted athlete who has come to an age where he realizes—an understatement here—that he will never please his father and never ever be like him.
Here to his mother Ben says, “My children are never going to go through what I have gone through.”
“Well, if I were you, mister,” Lillian (his mother) shot back, “I’d count my blessings. Other children haven’t had your advantages. Some children don’t have enough food to eat, others are sickly, others don’t have a roof over their heads, and others have parents who hate them.”
“And some children have diabetes,” Ben said, “and some have leprosy, some get eaten by tigers, some are born without arms, some get struck by lightning, and some use leaves for toilet paper.”
Lillian laughed to herself, “You’re like him in so many ways.”
“Like your father.’
“Don’t say that,” Ben said, as if in pain.
The remaining Meecham children include the aforementioned Mary Anne, a sarcastic, sacrilegious intellect who believes the best defense is a good offence and rips through the family insulting everyone from Ben—who is her primary target—to her little brother and sister, Karen and Matt. Only Okra the Meecham dog gets a pass.
Before Ben climbed into bed, Mary Anne stole into his room. “Oh, my hero, my jump-shooter. Let me touch your feet. No your golden hair or your runny red nose. Let me touch your emerald belly button.”
“. . . poor dumb jock of a brother. Your brain has begun to rot since basketball season started. . . .heroes don’t appeal to me. They think of others and do silly things, like die for causes. I like to think about myself. Before I do anything I ask myself, ‘What good will this do for my favorite person, the charming and elegant Mary Anne Meecham?’”
In the Great Santini we get one of Conroy’s most well drawn characters. The children fear him and yet he waltzes through his days and nights not only oblivious to this fact but believing that’s the way it should be. They are the family of a marine officer therefore they are marines.
He orchestrates war games in the house, orders work details and when he comes home from Happy Hour at the base he is rarely happy. The troops (as he calls them) stay clear of Santini.
Santini calls his troops to arms: “Listen up hogs,” he said to his children. They placed their forks on their plates, folded their hands in their laps, and listened with eyes that betrayed nothing. The Meecham children had mastered the art of staring at their father with eyes that were dazzlingly bland.
“At promptly 1,100 hours, your commanding officer will conduct the first Saturday Morning Inspection of the quarters. You will be at strict attention by your doors as soon as you hear the Marine Corps hymn played on the commanding officer’s lawn. You will clean up your rooms. You will police up the bathroom. You will help your mother in all matters. You will salute the colors. You will report to me when you are finished. You will work cheerfully until your detail is completed to my satisfaction. You will report to me any goldbricking on the part of a brother or sister who tries to take advantage of my kind nature and tries to shirk his or her responsibility. Now do you hogs have any questions?’” he asked.
In a great coming of age scene Ben beats his father for the first time ever in a one-on-one backyard basketball game. Santini, the loser, tries to change the rules and continue play until he, Santini, wins. When Ben refuses we see Bull Meecham in action. “Bull took the basketball and threw it into Ben’s forehead. Ben turned to walk into the house, but Bull followed him, matching his steps and throwing the basketball against his son’s head at intervals of three steps. Bull kept chanting, “Cry, cry, cry,” each time the ball ricocheted off his son’s skull.”
Following this scene we realize how Ben’s mother “lives to protect her life and the life of her children” from The Great Santini—denial!
Ben: “I used to keep count of the times he hit me and the reason. I did it for about two years. It makes funny reading now. In October 1958, I was slapped by Dad for not moving fast enough across the room when I was bringing him a beer. The next year he punched me for striking out three times in a baseball game. Another time he got me by the throat and slammed my head against the wall over and over again until you stopped him. That time, I had woke him up after he had been on a cross-country night flight.”
His mother’s response: “You’re exaggerating again. I don’t remember those times.”
So we have a volatile character in Santini, and yet the novel is laced with Conroy’s poetic passages, sentences that we read and then reread, vivid descriptions that run the gamut, from the picturesque South Carolina lowlands and rivers to spot-on descriptions of marines in action, the training, the brawls, and the debauchery.
And it is a book of visual scenes—some crude, some poignant , others upsetting but all done with that Conroy touch that would result in the brilliant film that earned Robert Duvall a 1981 Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Michael O’Keefe an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting role.
But, as compelling as we find the Santini and Ben characters there’s a real story here and readers will turn the pages of this older bestseller to enjoy the players who support this tale, Conroy’s well crafted personas who enable the Meecham family and more pointedly, Ben, to get past Santini and through what might otherwise be a dreadful life.
There’s Toomer: The son of the Meecham’s maid is a stuttering black man who grows and sells flowers door to door from a mule cart in Ravenel and becomes the target of one of the town’s racist evil and violent bullies.
He was a short man like his mother, extraordinarily dark with fine high-cheekbone structure to his face that gave his whole demeanor a darkly brooding nobility. On his left foot he wore a corrective shoe and he walked with a slight limp. He leaned far over on his knees and held the reins lightly as he pulled up beside Ben. His eyes were amused and curious.
“That’s about the ugliest c-c-cat I ever did see, white boy,” he said to Ben pointing a stubby finger at Okra.
“Well, that’s just about the ugliest cow pulling that wagon that I ever saw, too,” Ben replied.
“This ain’t no cow. This h-h-here is Man-O-War, winner of the Ken-tucky Derby.”
“It sure looks like a cow to me,” Ben said noticing the man had not smiled yet. “But this ain’t no cat. This here noble beast is Rin-Tin-Tin, star of stage, screen and TV set.”
And then: “Your name’s Toomer, isn’t it?” Ben asked.
“That’s what my mama called me.”
“My name’s Ben Meecham, Toomer. I live here at the house. I met your mama this morning and she seems like a real nice lady.”
“She sure raise a fine boy,” Toomer said breaking out finally in a huge smile.
Sammy Wertzberger: Ben’s ballsy high school friend whose self-deprecating sense of humor and lousy judgment offer both comic relief and, at times, unwanted trouble for Ben.
Here Sammy recues Ben after a failed date (that his father forced him to go on). The girl has rejected him and taken off with another boy:
The Rambler pulled in front of him and a small-boned boy leaped out of the car and walked back toward Ben with a ludicrously exaggerated swagger. “You’re probably saying to yourself, Ben, that a true stud like Sammy Wertzbeger always has a date with some gorgeous honey on a Saturday night. But it just so happens that I’m resting my body from a drive-in movie last night where I was attacked again and again by a lovely nymphomaniac.”
“Sammy, I’ve never been so glad to see anybody in my whole life.”
Sammy continues as Ben jumps in to his car: “Let’s make like horses--t and hit the trail.” Sammy says.
“Thanks for following, me Sammy.”
“The night is young,” Sammy said to Ben. “And there are thousands of women waiting to get their hands on the both of us.”
Mr. Dacus: the high school principal and former football coach who sees Ben and his father from a very objective and experienced perspective.
“I play basketball because I have to win a scholarship,” Ben announced.
“No, that’s not true,” Mr. Darcus disagreed. “That’s not even close to the truth. You play because you love your father.”
“I hate my father,” Ben said darkly.
“No you love him and he loves you. I’ve seen a lot of Marine fathers since I’ve been at the high school. Ben, hundreds upon hundreds of them, year after year. They’re a tight-assed lot and your father is as tight-assed as any of them. They love their families with their hearts and souls and they wage war against them to prove it. All your dad is doing is loving you by trying to live his life over again through you. He makes bad mistakes, but he makes them because he is a part of an organization that does not tolerate substandard performance. He just sometimes forgets there’s a difference between a Marine and a son.”
This Great Santini is one of the more unique characters to grace the pages of American literature. And in the end, like all great characters—-to be admired by readers for his consistency.
The publisher’s liner notes in the Dial Press Trade paperback edition calls Bull Meecham “Conroy’s most explosive character—a man you should hate but, but a man you will love.”
As the novel comes to a close the son he abused in so many ways struggles with the love-hate question in regard to his father. Well this reader, who thank the Lord didn’t have a man like that for a father, saw Bull Meecham with no uncertainty. “I loved to hate The Great Santini!”
For a copy of The Great Santini, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy Pat Conroy’s 1976 classic for less than Bull Meecham tipped bartenders in the base’s Officers Club. Simply click on the book’s cover.
Bob Cairns runs the site "Page Turners from the Past," a website devoted to bringing readers reviews of older books that deserve a good dusting off! His reviews are featured once a month on WRAL.com.