The Great Santini, Review
I like a good southern author, and Pat Conroy was one of my favorites. Prince of Tides is a memorable novel. That’s why I picked up a bundle of novels by Conroy that I hadn’t read. I recalled Robert Duval playing Bull Meecham in the film version of The Great Santini.
The time and setting of The Great Santini was reminiscent of my own childhood, however the closest any of the males came to Bull Meecham was maybe my crusty maternal grandfather who served in the navy. Bull ran his family like his squadron. He referred to them as hogs and sportsfans. His four children, two boys and two girls, were often awakened in the early morning hours for drills and cleaning while his southern bell of a wife looked on and ran interference when she could.
The family moved frequently due to Bull’s assignments, but his reckless daredevil antics were the same when he flew and in the bar. At the time, he was probably considered a man’s man. However he seemed to be a bully (hence the name). I have read this is the story of Conroy’s coming of age and Bull Meecham is indeed inspired by Conroy’s own father. Like all characters in Conroy’s books, even the villains have redeemable qualities and Bull Meecham is certainly one of them.
Life on the base is described in vivid scenes in the Officer’s Club. I’ve dated a few navy pilots and visited those clubs, so I know the descriptions are real and a little scary when you consider the fate of our military is in their hands. Hedonistic comradery, testosterone, and rivalry are piqued for some reason. Maybe it serves a purpose, but Bull’s family didn’t benefit from it and he didn’t seem to either. He had a charisma and could garner the support of the community with his brash charm.
Ben, the oldest son, is the protagonist in the story. His Marine Colonel father is most tolerable when he is away on assignments. Every relationship in the family is complicated, but Bull’s and Ben’s is particularly trying. Throughout the story, Ben struggles to stand up to his overbearing father, at times, trying to protect his mother from physical abuse.
It’s a touching story with social issues of the time woven into the family’s life. There are brief glimpses of fatherly love and tenderness, just enough to make Bull slightly likeable. I pictured Robert Duval and heard his voice as I read the scenes centered on Bull.
I recommend this book and all of Pat Conroy’s books. He has a way of capturing setting and character. It’s an inspiration that children raised by such a domineering father can be so resilient and embrace values and standards to lead productive lives. However, I’m not sure all of the children in the Meecham family did, especially Ben’s sister.
Because it’s the south, there is an incident with one of Ben’s friends, Toober. It’s graphic and disappointing, but real. Recently, I am discovering how very real the situation was, for Conroy and others, including my own hometown. This written account is a reminder that we cannot tolerate injustice anywhere and the more these truths are woven into stories, the better we can become as a society.