Thursday, December 3, 2009

South of Broad by Pat Conroy - Book Review

Pat Conroy is the quintessential contemporary American writer of the South. Grotesque, beautiful, Gothic, modern, angry, loving, funny, sentimental, cold-eyed, and overflowing with words, his writing fills the heart and gushes along the pathways of the mind while exploring the horror and wonder that living and growing up in the South can create. Raised in Beaufort, SC, the son of a Marine pilot assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, just across the bay from Parris Island, he writes with a strong sense of place and context. He graduated from The Citadel, in Charleston, and his novels are set in the Low Country of South Carolina. Conroy luxuriates in the atmosphere of the Low Country with an especial feel for life on and near the water. In his novels, he explores the joy and damage of family life among several psychologically and physically maimed people in the South. His latest novel, South of Broad, continues in the line of stories about young men trying to grow up and achieve a more-or-less normal adulthood in the face of extreme family violence and sexual abuse, while they learn how to cope with the region's historical anomalies of race, loyalty, humor, and violence. If you're a Conroy fan, South of Broad ranks with his other very successful tales as a page turner of unusual power and attractiveness. If you haven't read Conroy before, perhaps you'd be better advised to start with his two earlier, and perhaps greater, novels The Great Santini or Prince of Tides.

South of Broad begins on June 16, 1969 where Leopold Bloom King is off to deliver his papers. Now, those of you with a literary bent have already perked up your ears. For those of you who aren't familiar with the date, June 16, 1904 is the day in which James Joyce's seminal novel Ulysses follows the perambulations of its hero Leopold Bloom through the streets of Dublin. Thus we're introduced to Leo King, who will lead us through the streets of Charleston, SC during a series of life changing experiences during the summers of 1969 and 1989. Leopold, to complicate matters still more, has been sentenced to a variety of community service projects growing out of the traumatic suicide of his brother, Stephen Daedalus King some years before. His mother, Lindsay is both a noted Joyce scholar and the principal of the high school which Leo attends and at which his father Jasper teaches. On this day, he encounters almost all the essential characters who will enrich, complicate, and nearly destroy his life over the next twenty years. It all sounds complicated, but the combination of beautiful, ugly, loving, hating, gay, straight, black, white, orphaned and parented people creates a delightful and wondrous mix of characters a reader can't help caring about. I won't say anything more about the plot, except to note that it's full of surprises, some of which you won't like and others which seem, at the very least, well deserved, whether delightful or not. I also want to mention that this is very much an R rated book. It features graphic sex and violence as well as themes that some readers might find disturbing, especially when they revolve around varieties of mental illness.

It's difficult to treat Conroy's novels without trying to come to terms with the role of mental illness in the lives of his narrators. They are frequently people deeply damaged by verbal or physical abuse at the hands of their parents as well as traumatized by events in their lives. Sometimes, as in the present volume as well as in Prince of Tides, psychiatrists play at least a part in their healing. The fact that contemporary psychiatry is more about drug therapy than anything to do with behavioral or attitudinal change doesn't seem to occur in a Conroy novel. In Conroy, it's often the power of love that cures the hurts and damage caused by life, and he creates healing scenarios that are often deeply affecting.
Tradd Street - Charleston

Photo by David Cortner

Conroy is a child of the South and southern novels, like southern life, often treat with intricacies of racial interactions that those of us from the north are likely too easily to stereotype and oversimplify. From his first novel, The Water is Wide (later made into the film “Conrack” with Jon Voight) dealing with a young teacher in the Gullah community of the South Carolina barrier islands, to The Lords of Discipline about the desegregation of Conroy's alma mater The Citadel, to South of Broad the peculiar intricacies of the relationships between people who have a history of slavery, secret racial mixing, and living in close proximity to each other are explored with humor, insight, and grace. Conroy never papers over the difficult times whites and blacks have encountered, but he exudes a spirit of hope borne from familiarity and respect in the examples he chooses.

House on Tradd Street

Reading Conroy is like scratching a poison ivy itch. The scratching doesn't satisfy the itch, even as the pleasure turns to pain. And you can't stop scratching. I don't know if I love reading Conroy for his ability to move me to tears and laughter, or hate him for being a master of emotional manipulation. Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether his luminescent writing represents inspired riffs or craft of surpassing grace and elegance; whether he's portraying grotesque melodrama or the deepest of human experiences. He's at his very best when writing corrosive, hurtful dialogue portraying the deepest love/ hate relationships between his characters. He writes page turners I can't put down as I wait for his nasty, loving, damaged people to find new ways to love/hurt each other. Further, I can't tell whether Conroy has one of the richest writer's imaginations or one of literature's sharpest memories, or both.

Pat Conroy
In the end, Conroy tells great stories using expressive and vivid prose with skill and verve. Whether he writes fine novels that will be read in fifty, seventy-five, or a hundred years in the future or excellent topical and regional works that offer wonderful, if evanescent, entertainment I'll leave for history to say. But surely, his writing and story telling lies on the cusp where asking such questions is relevant.

South of Broad by Pat Conroy is published by Doubleday Books and can be purchased from them directly, at local, or online bookstores. Support your local independent bookseller.