On March 4, 2016 we lost one of our greatest writers. At the time of his death, however, Pat Conroy was a mystery to me. One evening, as we waited for a table to open up at our local Olive Garden, my uncle and I popped into the Barnes and Noble next door and on a whim, he bought me a copy of The Prince of Tides. Caught in the midst of a final undergraduate semester, it shamefully sat unread on my bookshelf for over a year. It wasn’t until I caught wind of his death that I dusted off the front jacket and dove in.
My first impression wasn’t great. I found the prose, like the dialogue, to be too much (Full disclosure: I’m dire hard Hemingway-ite. I love sparse language and, as Cormac McCarthy would say, a clean page). What I did not know in those first one hundred pages or so is that Conroy was only preparing me for the emotional cleansing that would soon follow. Needless to say, I loved the book. Its characters are comical in some ways yet real in every way. They needed help but in their dire conditions, they reach the reader and tug on the chords of what it means to be human, to suppress pain, and, most of all, come to terms with who you are. Never have I encountered a book quite so emotionally candid. Prince of Tides taught me quite a few things, things that I will hold on to for the rest of my life. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from it is that to write and to write powerfully requires pulling back my own skin and mustering the courage to deal with the emotional receptacle in which I place my own baggage.
The book also taught me to be Southern. I’m sure you might ask: Haven’t you always been Southern? And you would be quite right to ask because I have. But being Southern, at least for me, has always been a struggle. I know my history. I know what my region is famous for, and its hard not to be ashamed. No rational being could see the legacy of Slavery and Jim Crow without some emotional distress. And I, like Tom Wingo, trace my heritage back not to the Pilgrims, Puritans, or some trans-Atlantic ship in Ellis Island. No, I am an heir to the legacy left by men like Anse Brundren. Yet somehow–in some unexplained way–Conroy has given me peace about it. He’s taught me that no matter where I go, how hard I try, or how defiant I may turn in opposition to it, this strange place has marked me forever. There’s no sense in fighting it anymore.
Above all, however, Prince of Tides taught me to never give up on the people I love–and that includes my self. Of its many messages, redemption is perhaps its greatest. Not only does he find away to redeem his relationships, but Tom Wingo also finds away to redeem himself, becoming the man he always knew he could be.
Since finishing Prince of Tides, I have read Conroy’s Lords of Discipline, and while it is no Prince of Tides, the same themes seep through the pages. As is the case with all of his works, so I’ve heard, Lords of Discipline is 500 plus pages of emotional intensity. You end the book feeling strangely hollow yet satisfied. I’m convinced that all of his books operate this way, and I’m excited to find out. My one regret is that his death is what ushered me into his world. But even in his death, I–we–are still indebted to him. I closed Prince of Tides for the last time thousands of feet above the earth in a Southwest Airlines Jet. When I descended the tarmac, left the terminal, and drove out of the airport’s parking lot, I did so a changed man, and for that, I will always be thankful.
This video was published a day after his death.