When the Words Stop: An Ode to Pat Conroy
The following is a guest post by Brent Godwin, honoring Pat Conroy. Learn more about Brent at the end of this post.
It was a sweltering July day, the kind where you start sweating the moment you get out of bed.
I had just finished a stint as a cub reporter at a community newspaper in the notorious east Alabama crap hole known as Phenix City. (Yes, it’s really spelled that way.) I was back at my childhood home in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, recovering before finally heading back to school after being out for the better part of a year.
I headed through the heat to the public library.
A few weeks previous, my girlfriend’s grandmother---who knows of my love affair with all books and especially Southern ones---had suggested I check out an author named Pat Conroy. Grammy had shown me her copy of South of Broad which had just come out. Reading the intro to the book was enough to let me know her recommendation was sound.
Also, she’s Grammy, for crying out loud.
I found a copy of Prince of Tides, the book I was told was best to introduce me to Mr. Conroy. I’m only being slightly farcical when I say that I don’t remember the next three days.
I suppose I was book drunk–--completely consumed by Mr. Conroy’s story that not much else mattered. I just didn’t want the words to stop. I was only vaguely aware of my father, mother, and sister also being present in the house and trying to engage me in conversation and acknowledge me as another human being. None of it mattered.
Mr. Conroy’s words tore like a tornado through my mind, ripping apart my notions of what it was possible to do with words, and dropping them down in a foreign part of my brain, unrecognizable.
His work, dealing with dysfunctional families and abuse, threw my own mother’s life into a new light for me; an intensely personal and emotional experience. He managed to embody, with language, the very place he was writing about. The South Carolina lowcountry is a character in and of itself, in his books.
It felt like visiting an old friend when I traveled to Charleston for the first time many years after reading South of Broad.
Of course there are other authors, many of whom I also have great reverence for, who so completely put into words the feeling of a certain city or state. Harper Lee, even with the singular novel released during her lifetime (because, let's be honest, Go Set a Watchman hardly counts), is one of them.
In a two week span this year, the world lost both Ms. Lee and Mr. Conroy. It’s almost enough to make you ask what we did to receive such a punishment from the god of Southern literature.
Mr. Conroy, for me, is the gold standard in my mind of whose work I most want to emulate. In my own books, I hope to embody the setting of Birmingham–--a city on the verge of new life after a past that is every bit as dark, dysfunctional, and abusive as Mr. Conroy’s own life. It’s a fertile ground for stories, as Mr. Conroy showed us again and again.
One of the last things he said before his death was “I owe you a novel and I intend to deliver it.”
With all respect, Mr. Conroy, you don’t owe us a damn thing. But I know I sure owe you a hell of a lot.
Brent Godwin is a reader and writer in Birmingham, Alabama. You can follow him at @ohmy__godwin or ohmygodwin.tumblr.com.