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My exaggerated life, p.38
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.38

           Pat Conroy

  God bless these two women who kept the IRS away from me after that. Jane Lefco and Ann Torrago, who worked for Julian Bach, fought off the IRS for two years. And they had to fight off the California tax people, who they said were the meanest. They were going to put my Fripp house up for auction on the courthouse steps. That would have been nice; I would have enjoyed that. These two women kept arguing, “Why don’t you put Lenore’s house in San Francisco up for auction? That house is a million-something, and the house on Fripp he bought for $100,000.”

  The woman says, “We never go for the parasite. We always go for the host.”

  So one of the pressures of Beach Music was trying to stay out of prison for being a tax evader. I borrowed money from the bank, and Doubleday paid out more of my advance to keep me afloat. Beach Music made money, thank God, and when the two women got me on a conference call to tell me all the back taxes had been paid, they were cheering themselves as much as they were me.

  The divorce was rancorous, and on October 26, 1995, my fiftieth birthday, I was in divorce court in San Francisco. Fifty is an age that gets your attention; you’re half a century old. I remember being in the bathroom of the courthouse, looking down, and thinking I’m standing on a fifty-year-old foot, peeing through a fifty-year-old dick. It was kind of a shock.

  I wasn’t allowed to see Susannah alone during that time under court order, had to have Gregory and the shrink as a chaperone because Lenore said I was a crazy man who could not be trusted. And she was divorcing me because I was crazy, although in California, they don’t much care if you’re crazy.

  Conrad Donner, my lawyer in San Francisco, told me I was going to lose custody of Susannah. She had reached some age—like thirteen—where she could then tell the court she did not want to see me at all. And I think that’s what happened. I imagine Lenore put her up to that, but I don’t know.

  Lenore had suggested she needed $25,000 a month to survive at her current level. She was awarded $10,000 a month, which I thought was a lot. There were many years Lenore made more money than I did, and sometimes a lot more money than I did. The first year was a time I didn’t have any money coming in, and I still had to pay her the $10,000 a month. I lived on borrowed money for at least three years. But something in me was very happy that day of the divorce. Okay, I can start my life over again at fifty. I get to start this thing over again.

  When Beach Music comes out, it’s 1995; I’m in divorce court; I’m having a breakdown; it’s not my best year. I owe the IRS; I owe the bank. It just did not look good for the kid. The hero was limping. This took away anything I could have felt about the success of the book. But I’m on tour anyway. It was a long, exhausting tour; I went everywhere. One day I signed at a bookstore in Chapel Hill, and I got to stay with my friend Doug Marlette and his wife, Melinda.

  I had met Doug in about 1976 in Charlotte, where he was the cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer. After The Great Santini came out, Jim Townsend, the founder of Atlanta magazine, had in his drunken stupor been hired to run Charlotte magazine, and Jim had run across Doug and, “I got to get you two good cats together,” and that kind of bullshit that Townsend did. Doug and I were instant friends. He stayed in Charlotte till he got a job with the Atlanta paper. Doug Marlette was one of Bill Kovach’s first hires, and when he moved to Atlanta we became best friends.

  Here was the thing I loved about Doug: We used to talk every day. And what I’d go through with Doug, and what he’d go through with me is, when we entered these periods of depression, we were very good for each other in getting ourselves out of it. He was funny and could always make me laugh. Every day of my life, I could call up Doug, and by the end of that conversation, I would have laughed twenty-five times. I would know what was happening in every corner of the world. He had a stiletto-like mind and made conversation a kind of wonderland where we would follow each other around, what pissed us off, what was on our minds. When he was killed in a car crash, I wrote in my notebook, “Doug Marlette died today. What am I going to do the rest of my life?”

  He published two novels before he died, both very good, both very well received. By then he had gone back to live in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where his family had worked in a mill. He and Melinda used the money he got for a screenplay we wrote together to buy what we have to call a mansion: a beautiful, twelve-acre Southern mansion built in about 1820. The oak trees in their yard were where the British had hung the regulators in North Carolina, and I think the first chief justice had his office in this little cabin in the yard. It was a wonderful, wonderful piece of property, and this is where I had dinner with them when I was on tour for Beach Music.

  They were going to have a very intimate small dinner for me with their best friends. So they asked me, and I said, yeah, anybody you’ve got that’s not a writer, it would be great to invite them. Now, the two people Doug and Melinda had become closest two were Allan Gurganus and Lee Smith. In the game, you always are told to watch out for North Carolina writers; it’s a snotty group. The whole bunch of them are lurking around, and they all are stationed sort of near the Chapel Hill/Duke area, because they teach in the colleges there. I warned Doug from the very beginning that Nan Talese of all people had told me that Allan Gurganus was the most political writer she had ever met. I said, “When the Red Queen says that, pal, I would perk up.” But of course, Allan fell in love with Melinda, who was beautiful, and they went around doing things that gay men and beautiful women like to do, and I think they became really good friends. And Lee Smith is known for her saintliness. Among the writers, she is saintly. Anyway, I give my advice. I would not invite either one of them.

  So, it’s a lovely night, we’re barbecuing, I’m exhausted from this trip, and then Lee and Allan come over. Allan had on red Converse All-Stars, and Converse All-Stars were the shoes I wore as a basketball player in college, but I’d never seen red ones. After that evening, I said, “The red Converse All-Stars are mine, Marlette; they belong to me.” Okay, that’s the only thing we said. The dinner was incredibly sort of unenjoyable, but we all made the best of it. I got through it; I took off.

  I get off the tour, I go back to Fripp Island, and Marion is seeing me every day. I am limping to what was known as a life, and Doug and I were talking every day. Meanwhile, Doug is still writing his novel. Every once in a while he’d send me a couple of chapters. After that dinner party, the Gurganus figure in the book, who was unmistakable by the way—I want to be perfectly honest in all this—he was absolutely unmistakable, and he was wearing red Converse All-Star tennis shoes. It was a laugh-out-loud parody if you knew Allan.

  One reason I love Doug is he sees the horribleness of political correctness and what it could possibly lead to. He used to go through a hilarious routine where he would say, “I know how the world works now, Pat.”

  I’d say, “How, Doug?”

  He said, “It’s like this: woman—good; man—bad; black—good; white—bad; poor—good; rich—bad; gay—good; straight—bad.”

  He would go through a string of these, and I would be howling. He could do it all day.

  In about 2000 or 2001, Doug has a finished manuscript, and he’s actually sold it to Harper Collins. They send me a copy for a blurb, they send Allan a copy for a blurb, Lee a copy for a blurb, and then the shit hit the fan. Allan evidently lives down the hill from Lee, and he races up the hill, weeping uncontrollably at this dastardly portrait of himself. She takes him into her arms, and she comforts him. Then she calls Doug and tells Doug that he must know that you don’t do that to friends in books. And of course Doug, loyal Doug goes, “Pat Conroy does it all the time.”

  Lee said, but you know, there’s an unwritten code among writers that we will never do this. With Doug’s sense of humor, he says, “Oh, really? Didn’t I see your ex-husband in the last one? Didn’t he have one eye, too, just like your ex-husband?” So Doug is not moved and like me has a temper, and her piety set it off. He called me and asked me what I did when something like this came up, a
nd I said, “Doug, I will tell you my philosophy. It does not have to be yours. But I wouldn’t change a word. That’s not why I write. I certainly don’t write to be edited by other writers or to be censored by other writers. Get ready for the ram. It’s not going to be fun, it’s not going to be pretty,” and it wasn’t.

  When the book came out, Allan and Lee came for him, calling other writers, talking in the newspapers, complaining about the book. Word went around that the book was hideously homophobic, and some bookstores decided to cancel his book signings. It seemed to me now that liberalism had entered into the territory of censorship and book burning. And when we enter into the realm of censorship, I go off on it. I ended up blasting people with my usual delicacy for which I am well known. I am swinging the long sword with both hands, and it got to be a bloody fight.

  A friend of Allan’s ran the bookstore at Chapel Hill where Doug was going to have an appearance, and I was going to introduce him. She cancelled his whole appearance at the bookshop because she said the book was homophobic and they did not sell homophobic trash like that. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture got so intimidated by this gay backlash they called off a speech Doug was scheduled to give there. The bookstore in Asheville cancelled. Only afterward did the two owners, who were gay, read the book and say it wasn’t homophobic.

  When the word censorship was put out there, Allan and Lee realized they’d gone too far. But here’s what was interesting to me. I talked to some of the people at PEN, and I told them about what had happened; they were not at all interested in pursuing it. I said, “Let me ask you a question. Why are you interested in smashing any poor Christian mother or father’s natural upset over reading cusswords in a book? But you won’t go after so-called liberals when they try to shut down a book? Your organization exists to help books fight that. But it’s the right you jump on; the Christians you jump on. When the attack comes from the left, why do we hear nothing from you? Why don’t we hear a word? It’s such intellectual dishonesty I can barely stand it. Allan and Lee are not on your side. They’re on the right-wingers’ side; they’re on the book burners’ side; they are on the side of censorship.

  At Doug Marlette’s funeral I’m giving the usual stuff about Doug’s life, his achievements, and all this crap. Then I said, “There is one thing I want to tell you about Doug Marlette that he and I disagreed on completely. He loved whenever he spotted the Santini in me. He loved when the Great Santini to my horror would roar to the surface. He loved that fighting spirit of my father that my father unfortunately passed on to me. He always encouraged more than anybody that hideous part of me. So let me bring to this eulogy some of that fighting spirit today in memory of Doug Marlette,” and a cry went up from that crowd. And I said, “Here’s what I really want: bring me the head of Allan Gurganus!”

  Something was taken out of me in the writing of Beach Music, something I didn’t think I’d ever get back. I didn’t think I could ever write again after going through that book. It was the sheer exhaustion of seeing that one through, the pressure on me of no money, enormous debts, and the IRS all over me. I had to make that book sell if I could, because my house was going up for auction. So it was a long, long book tour where I ran my mouth trying to charm audiences.

  I went to Dayton, Ohio, where I’ve never been in my life. So I’m sitting in Dayton, and there’s a nice crowd. Anyway, I look up, and in the stacks I see my old shooting guard from the Citadel, John DeBrosse.

  I look up and said, “Hey, DeBrosse, you ever been in a bookstore before?”

  He looks at me and goes, “Yeah, Conroy, once. I was lost.” He comes up to me afterward and says, “Conroy, would you come home with me after this is over? My family doesn’t believe I know you. They don’t believe I’ve ever met you.”

  I said, “I’ve never seen you in my life. This is the first time.”

  He said, “You were always a pain in the ass. Just come by, meet my wife and kids.”

  So, after the thing was over, we’re driving to DeBrosse’s house, and we start talking. It’s easy, and I had not seen him in thirty years. On that book tour, my teammates started coming out of the woodwork. Jimmy Halpin in Philadelphia, and Dave Bornhorst. For some reason they just started materializing; Dan Mohr in Greensboro.

  We were driving to Johnny’s house, and we’re talking about that last horrible basketball season. It was that night that I realized these people had been thinking as hard about that season as I had, and it was as painful to them as it was for me. I didn’t think a book about something like that had ever been written, and that was the night I decided to write it. Then Nan Talese: “You want to write about a losing season? Basketball? Who cares?” But the head of our company from Germany, who was a jock, loved reading about basketball games in Santini and The Lords of Discipline, and he wanted me to do a sports book. So Nan caught the drift.

  I got to visit all the guys in their homes and sit and talk. Some of the other players had great recall, had details I had forgotten. They could remember things about me that I could not remember, or I had not noticed at that time. I didn’t know these guys would like me. I had no insight into that at all, but usually mine were the only books they had in their house.

  I did not realize that each of these guys had been hurt and damaged by the stupid season as much as I had. Our coach really was an Ahab-like figure. He was unrelenting, a fierce man to encounter at a very fierce school. The Citadel is enough of a test without going through one more great one, and Mel Thompson was a great test for all of us. What he could do is break your spirit in ways it was hard to recover from. And what was incredible to me is all these guys had basically recovered their spirits, even though they said they’d lost it after Mel. But they found it back; they found ways back. It turned out to be a great healing for all of us who were damaged terribly in that year. We all felt this damage, and it had nearly driven us crazy.

  When I got them together for our first reunion, I heard one of them say toward the end of the night, “Why in the world are we agreeing to do this? What is he going to do to us?”

  Another one of the guys said, “I know what he’s going to do to us. Look what he did to our fucking college.”

  And I’ve always loved this: One guy said, “Our college? Look what he did to his own father. And he’s going to do the same fucking thing to us.”

  When I went around interviewing my teammates, I always asked, “Do you remember my father?” And they’d only met him once or twice. He didn’t come to many games, and this was over a four-year period. In fact, I think he came to only one game. But I think they saw him for a practice when I was a sophomore, something like that. Anyway, they all had the same answer. Every one of them had the same answer: “What a fucking asshole.” It was a great corroboration of how Dad acted. Dad did not try to make friends with anybody. He did not consider that his job.

  Al Kroboth was a teammate who had been a prisoner of war after he was shot down in Vietnam. I went up to interview him in his home, and here I am, a draft dodger interviewing a prisoner of war. So Al starts telling me his story, and I thought there was going to be a lot of tension because of what he did during the war versus what I did during the war. But Al was such a great guy, it did not come up like that ever. You know, “You did what you did, Conroy; I did what I did. Let’s leave it at that.”

  My shock was learning that his first CO in the Marine Corps when he was in pilot training in Pensacola was Don Conroy.

  “Al, you are kidding me?”

  “No, I’m not, Pat.”

  I said, “Why didn’t Dad ever tell me that? Did he know about you?”

  He said, “Yes, he did. I can tell you how. When you first go into Pensacola—all the Marine and Navy pilots—you go in, and your father speaks to you. And he was a big, mean-looking, heavyset Marine.”

  I said, “You got him, pal.”

  “Mean as hell.”

  “Yeah, that’s him.”

  And he said, “I thought it was him. Wel
l anyway, Colonel Conroy makes us all stand up, say our name and where we went to college.”

  So Al stands up and said, “Al Kroboth. I graduated from the Citadel.”

  After the thing was over, Dad leans to the microphone and says, “Lieutenant Kroboth, could you report to me?”

  So, Kroboth goes up to Dad and salutes. Dad salutes him back. And he said, “Kroboth, when you went to the Citadel, did you know a guy named Pat Conroy?”

  Al said, “Colonel, Pat and I were on the same basketball team together. He was the captain of my team.”

  Dad looks at him and says, “That’ll be all, Kroboth.”

  We call Dad from Al’s house, and I repeat the story that Al told me. I said, “Dad, why didn’t you and Mom invite Al to dinner, take him out to the Officers’ Club? Why didn’t you do anything?”

  My father says, “Kroboth, are you there?”

  Al gets on the phone, “Yes, Colonel, I’m here.”

  Dad said, “Hey, Kroboth, you’re a Marine. What did you want me to do—marry you?”

  Al said, “I understand completely, sir.”

  So that’s what I grew up with. They invented the military for guys like my dad.

  This book was a good project for me to do after the stress of writing Beach Music. There was something very healing about going around and visiting all my teammates I had not seen in years. Sharing our stories, our memories—that was good for all of us. And we learned that we all had the same nightmare experience with that basketball season, but we recovered from the damage it did to us and even took something good from it into the rest of our lives. It was great for me getting back with all these guys. I’ve gotten to where I love my connections with the past, because military brats don’t have as many as most people do. The past has become very important to me, because I didn’t think I had one.

  After I was divorced from Lenore, a young girl came up to me in Beaufort to ask me out to dinner. She was beautiful. I said, “How old are you?”

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