Thief of Hearts, Prince of Scribes

Will Balk Weekly Hubris Banner 2017.

“. . . the world lost a loquacious, generous, and gifted writer; a troubled soul, who made his life work out of his struggle to overcome his difficulties; a liar who made a great truth from his life. And I lost a friend.”William A. Balk, Jr.

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

Signing Our Prince of Scribes.

Signing Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy.

William A. Balk, Jr.

ELKO, South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—October 2018—On March fourth, two years ago, the world lost a loquacious, generous, and gifted writer; a troubled soul, who made his life work out of his struggle to overcome his difficulties; a liar who made a great truth from his life. And I lost a friend.

When Pat Conroy died, a great many people also lost a friend; I am discovering only now, more than two years after his death, just how wide a swath of deep friendship he plowed. Not all those friends even had met Pat while he lived; now, when I introduce visitors to the new Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, some who know Pat Conroy only through his books have found themselves unexpectedly weeping, confessing deep dark passages in their own lives—passages only survived, they swear—because of the intervention of Pat Conroy through his books.

Some months after Pat’s death, I was approached by Pat’s friend, the editor Jonathan Haupt. I had written a memory of my friend Pat Conroy for this esteemed journal, Weekly Hubris, which had almost coincidentally appeared the day after his death. Jonathan asked if I would submit an adapted version of that essay for inclusion in a collection of memories about Pat to be published by the University of Georgia Press.

That book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, coedited by Jonathan Haupt and the novelist Nicole Seitz, has just been released. Among others, contributors include Rick Bragg, Ron Rash, Mary Alice Monroe, Sandra Brown, Janis Ian, Anthony Grooms—there are 67 contributing writers in all. And—highly unusual for this kind of collection—I am gratified to report that reviews have been surprisingly laudatory.

The essay that began it all appeared here in “Weekly Hubris” on March 7, 2016.I invite you to read it again as it originally appeared.

Pat Conroy and friend.

Pat Conroy and friend.

Odd characters were nothing new. Appearing often, along with the society grandes dames, diplomats, students, hipsters, housewives, and the occasional street person, our odd characters were welcomed and always were offered assistance. The ones you had to look out for were those you couldn’t “read,” the ones whose obscure intentions might be maleficent. Usually, this meant that some poor, misguided soul had wandered into the bookstore, thinking that here was an easy mark, a chance to rip off a few hot volumes to fence down the street.

Of course, since we didn’t deal in rare books, the street value of a stolen novel by Sidney Sheldon or a guide to the birds of Central America would be unlikely to yield enough for a cup of coffee. In those days, every neighborhood in Washington DC had at least one book store; a few blocks away in Georgetown, there were four or five. It wasn’t like books were hard to find, so the level of larceny we dealt with was pretty petty.

I was a diligent and responsible bookseller, though, and I learned over the years readily to identify likely miscreants on sight. I also learned, from my more experienced colleagues, how to deal with such a situation without unpleasant escalation. Usually, a shoplifting experience was avoided before it occurred. I was a good bookseller, and this adeptness in handling the “shrinkage” problem was a useful professional skill.

Years later, I moved to Beaufort and began working in the long-established bookstore downtown on the main street. I quickly adapted to the different pace, the new range of favorite reading matter, and the panoply of reading customers who peopled the town. My knack for finding the right book for the right reader became a point of challenge for our clientele and a point of pride for me. Beaufort is a small town, albeit a sophisticated one, but the skills and experience I’d acquired in the Washington stores were frequently put to productive use. Although shoplifting seemed to be fairly infrequent in the Beaufort store, I still felt obligated to remain watchful and attentive both to serve our customers well and to be aware of potential thieves.

Not too long after I started work in the bookstore in Beaufort, on one of those quiet days when we would usually be visited by only the most dedicated readers, my personal radar was alerted upon the arrival of a rather shambolic man, whose obviously well-worn clothes and distracted manner seemed somehow out of synch with the usual flow of visitors.

The new arrival had made a bee-line for the back sections of the bookshop, away from the front-of-the-store traffic, such as it was. I had learned years before that I rarely had reason to be fearful of someone intent on shoplifting a book, and I was not uncomfortable with approaching such a person in the store. After all, my prejudices could easily have misled me in my assumptions, and I was convinced that even potential shoplifters might be persuaded actually to buy and read something if I could come up with the right book for them.

I headed to the back of the store, where I encountered the man, now perusing the shelves intently. This was the section where our books about the Lowcountry took up a large and prominent portion of the store, books sought after by our many visitors from “away,” and by our loyal local clientele as well. Nothing really valuable, but many of these books were hard to find, and I was especially concerned with keeping those books available for our buying customers.

I approached the man, genially offering my assistance in his search. This opening gambit usually evoked a hasty demurral from one whose intention was theft, and I had found that persistence in trying to help a “customer” could abort such plans.

In this case, however, the suspect’s countenance lit up when I offered assistance. He assured me he didn’t really need help, but what would I suggest for him to read? Well! This was either an excellent riposte by a mastermind bent on thwarting my anti-theft techniques . . . or the engaging response of a joyful reader.

As a bookseller, I usually need a bit of history, some interesting tidbits about a reader’s responses to particular books, to formulate a rough idea of where his or her interests lay. This guy was revealing nothing to me. He proceeded to inquire about my own reading discoveries recently, most of which he had either read or had acquired but not yet opened.

If he was planning on shoplifting, this guy was a past master at disarming store security. He was charming, witty, engaging, and unassuming.We spoke for a little while, I found a few titles I was fond of and which he had not read, he thanked me, bought them, and left. His credit card read “Donald P. Conroy.” Pat Conroy.

It would be the first of many encounters.

The bookstore.

The bookstore.

Not too long after this first meeting, I looked up to see Pat coming into the store, headed directly for me. He looked at me very intently and said, “So! You’re that Will Balk!”

When we’d met that first time in the store, when I had been so suspicious of him, we had not exchanged names, so I was more than a little surprised that he had learned mine. Taken aback, I asked what he meant.

At the time, Pat’s new novel had been delayed for months. Rumors abounded throughout the book business about its subject, about its length, about all sorts of things. The book would be titled, it was said, Beach Music (a particularly resonant term for Carolinians of a certain age); and it would reputedly center on the lives of a group of 60s radical students who encounter each other years after a defining action in which they had all participated. It would, as well, draw on characters and events Pat knew intimately—as is the case with virtually everything Pat writes.

“So! You’re that Will Balk!”

Pat had been at a dinner party the night before with a mutual friend, and the conversation had centered on his novel-in-progress. The central events and characters of the book were drawn from actual events and people in the 60s, and a lively discussion ensued among the dinner guests, some of whom remembered quite well the time and the events. It was then that Pat learned that I—the chatty bookseller he had just met downtown—was one of the prime movers in the actual events on which his book turned; that I was one of the core group of real-life friends whose intersecting fictional lives provided the crux of the story he was writing.

So, indeed, I became “that Will Balk.”

Some years ago, I had been sent a galley copy before publication of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, one of the perks of being a bookseller in those halcyon days. I was overwhelmed by the book, by Cunningham’s writing, by the integration of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway into a modern setting. I loved the novel, and immediately set about promoting it among my more sophisticated readers at the bookstore in anticipation of its official release.

It became one of those astounding successes that are rare in small bookstores in small towns, and we sold hundreds of copies in hard- and soft-cover.

Pat was a frequent visitor to the store and browser among the books, and invariably he would ask for recommendations. For more than a year, every time he came in, I would insist he read The Hours. And, every time, Pat would decline. Finally, just a day before Pat was to leave on an extended visit to Ireland, he came by for something to read on the trip. He picked up a couple of good new novels, and I came up to him, a copy of The Hours in my hand. He started to decline once again, but I interrupted him. “Pat,” I said, “take this and read it, damn it! I’m buying it for you.” So it went to Ireland among the other titles.

A week or so later, I got a call from JFK Airport in New York. It was Pat. “Listen, damn it! How the #*@& you did that, I’ll never know! Here I am flying back from Ireland, I finish that damn The Hours over the Atlantic, I open my copy of ‘The New York Times’ . . . and there’s the news that The Hours not only won the PEN/Faulkner Award, but it won the Pulitzer as well. How did you know?” I laughed and said of course I hadn’t known. “Shut up and listen. I got off the plane a few minutes ago. I called Jonathan Galassi . . . ” (NB: The superstar editor of Farrar Straus & Giroux, the publishers of The Hours) “. . . and told him there was this crazy bookseller in tiny little Beaufort SC, who had singlehandedly sold thousands (sic) of copies of this book, and who had personally forced me to read it against my better judgment. I told him,” continued Pat, “you owe this guy. I mean it!”

Within a week, I had received a gracious hand-written note of thanks from Mr. Galassi, along with a copy of The Hours inscribed with a note of thanks from Michael Cunningham.

Recently, at a weeklong celebration of all things Pat Conroy in Beaufort, Pat saw me in the hallway of the performing arts center. He called me over and introduced me to Jonathan Galassi, who had flown down for the conference. It had been over 15 years since the episode at JFK and, to my great delight, Pat related the entire story to Mr. Galassi, recalling every detail.

A town as small as Beaufort unsurprisingly has a population who all claim close friendship with Pat Conroy; and most of those claims are, in fact, justly made. I have been consistently awed by Pat’s recognition of people he met years before, recalling names and details of family and events. The numbers of people who claim to have “gone to school with Pat” far exceeds the student bodies of every school Pat ever attended, but Pat always welcomes “classmates” with affectionate bonhomie.

I’ve never felt comfortable claiming best friendship with Pat. I met him “professionally,” so to speak, but share no childhood memories of him. In the twenty-odd years I’ve known him, I have, I hope, been able to assist him professionally and personally. Even so, whenever I encounter Pat in places local and far distant from Beaufort, he has never failed to offer a warm kiss on the cheek or a huge embrace. I have been surprised in train stations and concert halls in major cities to hear Pat’s booming voice call out, “Hey! That Will Balk!” I have been repeatedly humbled by his generosity of spirit and his bounteous encouragement.

The wellspring of Pat Conroy’s writing is his upbringing in a large Catholic military family under a cruel and brutally abusive father. The traumas of his youth were turned to lush and fecund prose—too lush and fecund, according to some critics. His alienation from a sister and a brother’s suicide seemed an unrelenting continuation of his earlier struggles.

And now, Pat says he has pancreatic cancer.

Typically, there’s a small gift to me—to all of us, actually—in Pat’s words: he is aggressively treating his cancer, and every moment he can manage he is writing. He promises another novel.

Note Regarding Images: The image of the author signing books is by Margaret Evans; the image of Pat Conroy and the portrait of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the image of the bookstore are by Christine L. Stanley.

About William A. Balk, Jr.

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, William A. Balk, Jr. was educated at the state’s namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation’s capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. He has been a regular columnist for “The Lowcountry Weekly” newspaper for seven years; he is included in the award-winning book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy. He has assumed several new roles in recent years, including caregiver for his near-centenarian mother, advisor to the Pat Conroy Literary Center, and member of the Board of Directors for South Carolina Humanities. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called “The Garden,” Balk’s aim has long been “to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.”
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One Response to Thief of Hearts, Prince of Scribes

  1. Anita Sullivan says:

    A beautiful and very satisfying story, thanks, Will. I particularly love the photo of the bookstore. I will make a point of looking Pat Conroy up. My mother used to read his work, and kept telling me I should too.

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