BOB MCKINNEY: What I know


BOB MCKINNEY: What I know

A few weeks ago I received the following late-night text message from a friend, a fellow voracious reader:

“You read Lowcountry Heart?”

I told him I had not.

He then proceeded to transmit, via smartphone photos, an entire chapter from “Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life,” a compilation of non-fiction essays by the late author Pat Conroy, as well as tributes to Conroy from friends and admirers. It includes a poignant introduction written by his widow, Cassandra King, an esteemed author herself.

The title is more than appropriate, with “Lowcountry” being the geographical nickname for the area of coastal South Carolina where Conroy moved as a teenager and which, although having lived in various parts of the world, he considered home. His readers were well aware of his love affair with the region.

The pages my friend sent to me were from a piece Conroy wrote about Nashville author Ann Patchett, who interviewed Conroy in Nashville at a live event a few years ago during a stop on his book tour promoting his last full-length work, “The Death of Santini.”

My friend said it included a reference to “the night we went downtown to hear him.”

He was a little mixed up. Unfortunately, I was not present at the Conroy-Patchett event. In fact, this friend told me about it after the fact. Somehow I had missed hearing about it and he went without me, an occurrence that put our friendship in jeopardy.

To get over his guilt, I suppose he recreated the event in his mind with me there beside him.

What he was probably thinking of was a Saturday in October 2015 when I, being much more thoughtful, invited him to go with me to the Nashville Public Library where Conroy would be speaking at the Southern Festival of Books.

It is an occasion I’ll always remember with great fondness. Already in failing health when we heard him, Conroy died less than five months later.

I have read just about everything Conroy wrote, including an introduction to the 75th anniversary edition of “Gone with the Wind,” the classic Civil War novel I read for the first time last year, enjoying Conroy’s introduction as much as the book itself.

With his fiction, he took real life experiences and created such masterpieces as “The Lords of Discipline” (about his time at The Citadel, which rendered him barred from the campus for over 30 years); “The Great Santini” (in which he recounted life with an overbearing and sadistic father); and “The Prince of Tides” (of which, prior to its publication, his mother made him promise to make beautiful the character based on her).

He also took inspiration from stories others told him, and there is no telling how many people he met over the years who showed up in modified versions of themselves as characters in his books.

As King put it, “He was a man who loved the written word beyond all measure, and who believed that each of us has at least one great story to tell.”

His most popular non-fiction work (other than the aforementioned “The Death of Santini,” in which he tied together loose ends from life with his dysfunctional family) was “My Losing Season,” a stirring retrospective on his Citadel basketball team and his deep friendships with his teammates.

“Lowcountry Heart” gives Conroy’s legions of devotees yet another opportunity to savor the master storyteller’s ability to put together words in a way that could only be described as beautiful, although I’m not sure that adjective does justice to his talent.

For me, it was another step in grieving his passing, grimly facing the reality that there will be no new offerings from the pen of one of my favorites.

Many chapters are taken from a blog Conroy started when his health began to deteriorate and he could not travel as much as he once did. Others are excerpts from letters he wrote or transcripts of speeches he made. They are all classic Conroy.

With his blog entries starting with the cheery greeting, “Hey, out there,” he made it clear this would not be his preferred method of communication, expressing distaste for the word “blog.”

With his failing health, however, it was a way he could maintain contact with his readers, if not provide a protracted farewell to them.

As if he knew his mortality was staring him in the face, he wrote about his own favorite books and authors, including the chapter on Ann Patchett. He expressed appreciation for countless relationships over the course of his life and, as shared by his widow in her introduction, made it clear that the collective one he had with his readers was among his most treasured.

At the end of entries about a person or persons dear to him, he would close with the simple words “Great love …”

He gave glimpses into circumstances at which he had hinted in his books: struggles with depression, failed marriages and an ongoing attempt to come to grips with his upbringing.

He referenced the eventual reconciliation with his father, about which he had shared in greater detail in “The Death of Santini.” He and The Citadel also made peace, and one chapter is a transcript from a speech he made there.

Of his six siblings (he was the oldest), one had committed suicide, while one remained estranged from him. With the others he spoke of a warm relationship.

Just as it was with the books he wrote, I did not want this one to end.

If you were/are a fan of the great Conroy, and you have not read “Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life,” I urge you to move it to the top of your stack, and begin your own reflecting.

Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, husband of one, father of three and father-in-law of two. Email him at bmac1018@yahoo.com.

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