Before telling his son a simple story, Bull Meechum announced:
I am Santini, the Great Santini.
I come from behind the moon, out of the dark, unannounced.
“Sisyphusian,” he then said, and repeated it. A look of incomprehension spread over the young boy’s face.
“Sisyphusian,” the Great Santini said a third time.
“Three times, you say something three times, and it sticks perfectly like chewing gum to the bottom of a chair. The first time it could be an accident. The second, recognition begins to kick in, and third time, bang you are there. Carnival barkers, magicians and lawyers, all do it. It is a trick of the trade.”
Let me explain, the Great Santini continued, “In Greece, before the Romans kicked ass and brought a little order to the Mediterranean world, lived Sisyphus, son of King Aeolus of Thessaly and founder of Corinth. He was crafty. I am not talking paper mâché crafty here. No flour-water-paper-balloon project. I am talking cunning. Here is one example. Sisyphus had a brother named Sal and they hated each other. Sisyphus seduces Sal’s daughter and plans to use their children to dethrone Sal and get everything for himself, only she discovers his deceit and kills the children herself. How’s that for an effed up family? Another example, just before he dies, Sisyphus gets his adoring wife to promise him that when he dies she will throw his naked body in the public square. No reason, just a test of her undying devotion and love. She does and Sisyphus uses that as a pretext to get the gods to send him back to earth. Now that is one crafty “sumofabitch.”
And Sisyphus would have gotten away with all his tricks had he not overestimated his abilities and tangled with Zeus. “Hubris is reserved for the gods,” Zeus said, and so saying, punished Sisyphus by forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and having to repeat this for an eternity.
“Son,” Santini said, “Sisyphus was succeeded in Corinth by his son Glaucus and he never lifted a finger to help his poor old dad. That is effed up.”
The boy thought about this image years later after his father died. He thought about it each time he took up his pen and wrote about making sense of a dysfunctional family.
Three weeks after announcing he had pancreatic cancer, Pat Conroy said, “I celebrated my 70th birthday in October and realized that I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don’t believe I’ve even come close.” What is the point, he thought privately.
“Sisyphus,” his father said when Pat arrived at the Pearly Gates.