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When life was a battle for honor and dignity

My Losing Season, by Pat Conroy, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 406 pages, $27.95

October 13, 2002|Jeff Turrentine | Jeff Turrentine is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Book Review, the New York Times Magazine and

At the beginning of his senior year at the Citadel, a basketball player with literary aspirations climbed aboard the bow of a yacht docked in the campus marina. As he surveyed the school from his lofty vantage point, the young man, fresh from an encouraging visit with his favorite English professor, made a solemn promise to "remember everything."

Pat Conroy certainly kept that promise. He has built an impressive 30-year career from vividly recounted remembrances of his days at the Citadel, the South Carolina military college famous for its punishing caste, or "plebe," system; of his abusive father, an ex-Marine whose rigidity mutated into unspeakable brutality on the home front; and of basketball, the game that sustained Conroy throughout his lonely youth. These three forces eventually combined to form a rich vein that he has mined for two popular novels, "The Lords of Discipline" and "The Great Santini." (His most famous and best-selling novel, "The Prince of Tides," stayed out of the barracks and off the basketball court but still had plenty to say on the issue of family dysfunction.)

Few who know the details of the author's life have ever doubted that "The Lords of Discipline" and "The Great Santini" were really autobiographies masquerading as fiction. Any lingering doubts are dispelled by his memoir, "My Losing Season," a spirited paean to the game of basketball and a bittersweet recollection of the events that ushered Conroy into his life as a novelist. Once again Conroy returns to the mine of his youth, specifically to his final year on the Citadel's basketball team before his graduation in 1967. It was, he writes, "the year I began to catch small glimpses of the man I was becoming, moments when all the disfigurements and odd bafflements of my hidden childhood began to reveal themselves in unfocused glances into my nature." It was also, he tells us, "the year I learned to accept loss as a part of natural law."

What Conroy loses, mainly, is basketball games. The Citadel Bulldogs are by no means the terrors of the Southern Conference, and this second-string point guard and his teammates feel the sting of defeat as regularly as (or perhaps a little more regularly than) they experience the rush of victory. Winning is nice, he admits, but "[l]oss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass. Though I learned some things from the games we won that year, I learned much, much more from loss."

This hard-won perspective proved invaluable decades later, when Conroy suffered bouts of depression that left him contemplating suicide. It was the lesson of his losing season, he suggests, that saved him by reminding him that life wasn't fair, that winning wasn't certain and that he had an obligation to go on living nonetheless.

In 1967, Conroy was also learning how to deal with his father, the abusive bully so memorably captured in "The Great Santini" (and later immortalized by Robert Duvall in the movie of the same name). Readers and moviegoers who wonder whether Conroy exaggerated his father's cruelty may be surprised to learn that, on the contrary, he sugarcoated it. "It was my belief that if I told the truth about Donald Conroy that I would lack all credibility and that no one would want to read a book that contained so much unprovoked humiliation and violence," he writes. "I added touches of humor and generosity to Colonel Meecham [the fictional stand-in for Conroy's father] that my father had never displayed in his military life."

Through it all, Pat Conroy's refuge is basketball. As he recounts the season's games against the Bulldogs' formidable competitors, he seems possessed by some animating ghost. His memory for the details of decades-old glories (and ignominies) astounds us ; Conroy is able to transport us back to these games -- every one of them -- because he has been transported, seemingly reliving them as he writes. Field goals and full-court presses are recollected not as statistics but as the mighty swings of broadswords. At times, "My Losing Season" reads like a war memoir: There's the same band-of-brothers camaraderie, the sense that every game is a battle in which honor and dignity (if not actual lives) are at stake.

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