publication date: 1976
The Great Santini was a detailed study of American military life in the early 1960s. The story focused on the Meecham family: patriarch and Marine Bull Meecham; wife Lillian; and kids Ben, Mary Anne, Matthew, and Karen. It started with Bull returning from a tour and moving his family once again from Atlanta to yet another Marine base. As the kids grappled with a new school, Bull was tasked with commanding a notorious squadron. Against this back drop were the major focuses of the book: the impact the Marines had on Bull and his family and the fraught relationship between Bull and his oldest son, Ben. The book was made into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Robert Duvall.
I have to say, there was not much about this book I enjoyed or cared for. Bull Meecham, who called himself the Great Santini, was abhorrent. The book began with him getting blitzed in Spain at the end of his tour. He was destroying a hotel with other Marines – throwing up and breaking glasses – and when the maitre d’ asked him to stop, this happened: “’Beat it, Pedro,’ Bull said. When I want a tortilla I’ll give you a call.’” That was on page three and that about summed up Bull Meecham. He was an inconsiderate racist jerk who didn’t show much respect or affection for anyone. He sporadically beat his wife and kids and expected anyone and everyone to respond to his every whim. He deliberately ran over turtles. The rest of the characters weren’t that great either, although I suppose they were all tainted by Bull Meecham. Additionally, I think we were supposed to find all of this just a little bit funny or endearing. The back of the book described Bull as an “explosive character – a man you should hate, but a man you will love.” Well, sorry, book blurb, but I just thought he was awful.
Also, there was a lot I simply didn’t get. I’m not a father or a son, or a military brat. So all the talk about the pressure put on the Meecham family, especially Ben, was a little lost on me. I thought that lack of connection fell a little bit on me and a lot on the author. There are a lot of books I read that have no semblance to my life, but the author presented them with a universality that meant I could relate to the characters or the situation or at least find meaning in the whole thing.
With all that being said, I thought this book served a purpose. After reading a bit about Pat Conroy, it seemed this book was more a memoir than straight-up fiction. And, as one man’s experience, the book cannot be criticized for not being “universal” enough. Further, it’s probable that a lot of people experienced what Ben and the other Meechams went through: a volatile relationship with an often absent military man that you both loved and hated. The book also recognized and described a subset of American culture: the roving military family.
However, there were some flaws with the book beyond any personal dislike I had for it. All the black people – there weren’t many – either served white people with peace and composure or were criminals. Most of the women were either loving mothers or pretty people who used their looks to hurt and injure. A woman’s body was described this way: “It had rich curves that invited the secret scholarship of men’s eyes.” Most of the characters employed an undifferentiated, too-clever dialogue. Additionally, the tone was sometimes incoherent and rambling.
No matter how much I didn’t enjoy this book, because I found it unfunny and slow and even a little boring, I could really imagine that others would like it. They would read something that reminded them of their own life or find something funny about the South or really empathize with one or all of the Meechams. Because of that, I’m giving the book:
4/6: worth reading