Originally published online here.
When I first finished The Great Santini, I mentioned that there seemed to be a lot of random violence towards the end. I now believe I know the purpose of that violence, but I’m not sure the purpose makes it any less random.
What’s interesting to me is that the majority of the violence came from people who were not the titular abusive character.
I went into the book expecting first-hand depictions of horrific child abuse. I described the indirect mentions and tension fully anticipating that they were leading somewhere dreadful. But the book was not that facile or straightforward. Most of the abuse was in the past; it guided the present but didn’t appear in it. It led the reader to the conclusion that if Bull’s kids would have just done things his way, everything would have been fine, and he really wasn’t that bad a guy after all.
It’s brilliant. Because this is exactly how Ben Meecham was feeling.
The random violence and killings stripped Ben of his support systems. His best friends were either killed or jerked away from him. He had nothing when the final blow came, and he ended up filling the hole in his life with the one man he knew best. At the end of the book, in a twist on the archetypal “mentor dies, hero accepts his destiny” story, Ben started becoming Bull.
He started becoming the man he’d spent the entire book resisting, hiding from, and going along with to appease. He started becoming what he insisted he never would. And it happened because that was all he ever knew, and when that was gone–when Bull died–a part of Ben needed that presence, and the only way to get it was to bring it back himself.
If Ben had had Toomer around, or Sammy, when his father died, I imagine things would have gone differently. He would have had other men in his life to remind him of what he wanted to be. Mr. Dacus was a father figure, the father Ben could never have, but ultimately he approved of Bull, and Ben took that approval to heart.
And with Bull dead, without the constant reminders of fear and uncertainty to guide Ben, it would only be that much easier for Ben to forget what he had hated and embrace the love he wished he felt for his father when he was alive.
This story felt true because it was true, and I think that truth greatly added to the experience. There are flaws. I pointed out a perspective problem in my original post; I never found anything later to disprove my view that it wasn’t intentional. And there was that feeling, again, that the violence in the latter half of the book came out of nowhere solely for the purpose of guiding Ben down a path towards his father.
But the prose was startlingly poignant, and the dialogue was sharp. I imagine that writing this novel was both cathartic and instructive for Pat Conroy, and I look forward to seeing how he pairs that experience with his natural gifts in later books.