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Catherine Seltzer
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Man on Fire

Publisher Nan A. Talese Books/Knopf, 2019

Pat Conroy once observed that Thomas Wolfe, one of his early literary heroes, “writes like a man on fire who does not have a clue how not to be on fire.”  It’s a wonderful line, a visceral description of a performance in which the writer risks self-immolation in a reckless pursuit of his art.

It’s not a stretch to argue that Conroy’s appreciation of Wolfe’s work was rooted in a profound sense of sympathy: Pat Conroy, too, was a man on fire. His novels—which include The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, and South of Broad—and his autobiographical works—The Water is Wide, My Losing Season, and The Death of Santini, among them—have drawn a legion of loyal fans for both their unrestrained lyricism and their willingness to engage with the dangerous fires associated with emotional, domestic, and cultural truths.  In his personal life, too, Conroy often was attracted to flame, committing himself fully to courses of action that would leave him singed if not scorched.  Man on Fire: A Literary Biography of Pat Conroy, then, attempts to create a full portrait of Pat Conroy as both an ambitious writer who sought to chronicle his life and age, and as a complicated, at times enigmatic man who struggled to define himself within and outside of his art.

In many ways, Pat Conroy is already a familiar figure to a significant number of his readers.  His novels all draw deeply from his own experiences, and Conroy explored his personal history in an equal number of explicitly autobiographical texts, including, most recently, The Death of Santini.  As a result, the details of Conroy’s life—which include growing up with an abusive Marine father and a distant and manipulative mother; suffering brutal hazing at The Citadel, a private southern military college; and teaching in a two-room schoolhouse on a remote South Carolina barrier island during the Civil Rights Era—are well known to Conroy’s vast readership.  Indeed, it’s fair to say that Conroy is not simply familiar to most of his fans, but almost familial to them.  The novelist Carolyn See once confessed that although she had not met him, “I’ve always thought of Pat Conroy as a cousin or a brother or an uncle,” and this sense is broadly echoed among Conroy’s readership.  He is “the cousin or brother or uncle” who has given voice to a shared history of family trauma, racial anxiety, and religious uncertainty, and the result is a connection between Conroy and his readership that is unprecedented.  Man on Fire seeks not simply to illuminate the details of an already familiar life, then, but to add to this narrative by addressing the gaps—many crucial—that are the natural consequence of Conroy’s efforts to craft an engaging and coherent autobiography.  (As Conroy himself explained, “I approach the art of memoir with an open heart, not [a] puritanical eye.”)  Moreover, Man on Fire often complicates the existing narrative by introducing material from Conroy’s papers—unpublished journals, personal and professional correspondence, and draft manuscripts —as well as interviews with Conroy, his friends, his family, and his colleagues, texts and voices that dramatically enrich—and sometimes alter—an understanding of Conroy and his work.

Man on Fire