A friend told me that Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini was the first book that ever brought him to tears. And I love Pat Conroy, and I wanted to understand my friend better. So I read it, timed to finish it by the day that Conroy’s latest, South of Broad, came out.
And the ending wiped me out, a real paean to forgiveness and prayer and grace. Can I quote? Do you mind?
The background: the narrator, Ben Meecham, is a high school senior who has had a conflicted boyhood at the hands of his Marine aviator father, whose love is shown with fists and small graces alike. Ben still feels love for his misguided and dangerous father, and somehow Conroy masterfully makes that believable and likely. When Bull Meecham (“The Great Santini”), the father, dies in a plane crash, Ben is partly relieved, partly grief-stricken. And the book ends with his attempts to pray:
“And he realized that he lived in a Santiniless world now and he trembled when he thought that he was, in many ways, relieved that his father was dead. It made him angry that a burden was lifted from him at his father’s funeral and it made him suffer…. Ben Meecham wanted to pray but he was afraid he was not worthy of prayer. But he was even more afraid that he had no belief in prayer. Yet he had belief in wonder, and in the next twenty-five miles of black Carolina highway, he thought:
“Can a boy begin a prayer with the hatred of his father in his heart? Can that boy walk up to the altar of God and can he lay that hatred out? Can he spew his hate and tell his sory? Can he tell about beatings and humiliations? Can he tell of the Marine who stormed the beaches of his childhood? Can he look into the eye of God and spit into that purest source of light for engendering his soul in the seed of a father who did not know the secret of tenderness, a father who loved in strange, undecipherable ways, a father who did not know how to love, a father who did not know how to try?
“…. And can one boy who has said ten thousand times in secret monologues, ‘I hate you. I hate you,’ as his father passed him, can this boy approach this singing God and can he look into the eye of God and confess this sin and have that God say to him in the thunder that is perfect truth that the boy has not come to talk to him about the hatred of his father, but has come to talk about mysteries that only gods can interpret, that only gods can translate? Can there be a translation by this God all strong and embarrassed, all awkward and kind? Can He smile as He says it? How wonderful the smile of God as he talks to a boy. And the translation of a boy screaming ‘I hate you. I hate you.’ to his father who cannot hear him would be simple for such a God. Simple, direct, and transferable to all men, all women, all people of all nations of the earth.
“But Ben knew the translation and he let the God off with a smile, let him go back to his song, and back to his flowers on River Street. In the secret eye behind his eyes, in Ben’s true empire, he heard and saw and knew.
“And for the flight-jacketed boy on the road to Atlanta, he filled up for the first time, he filled up even though he knew the hatred would return, but for now, he filled up as if he would burst. Ben Meecham filled up on the road to Atlanta with the love of his father, with the love of Santini.”
This is a prayer as honest as the Psalms, which invite us to grapple and rant with a God who welcomes us even when all we have is a willingness to be made willing, a lack of aversion to redemption. Enough.
Oh, and read Conroy.