Tuesday, September 8, 2009

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

The Prince of Tides (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986) by Pat Conroy is one of those books I remember as a real litmus test. People became soul mates on the basis of loving that book. People were just mad for it. The World According to Garp (Dutton, 1978) by John Irving was another title I felt had a similar intensity and effect. Well, Pat Conroy is back with a new novel, South of Broad (Nan A. Talese, 2009), which I couldn't wait to read. The Prince of Tides and his memoir, My Losing Season (Nan A. Talese, 2002) are my two absolute favorites by him. The memoir really helped me to know Conroy as a young man.

In South of Broad, the narrator named Leo King is also known as Toad because he was "born ugly in a city that prizes beauty." His self-effacing, understated, good-hearted manner reminded me very much of the Pat Conroy I met in the memoir. Two bandied about phrases about the new novel I've heard or read most often are these: that the book is a "love letter to Charleston" and that it is full of "saints and sinners." Both are true. The book is also a little too full of horrible psychopaths, abusers, madwomen and nymphomaniacs, not to mention way over the top plot developments. But he is Pat Conroy, so I forgive him for it. I'll put up with those flaws anytime to fall under his baroque, multi-sensory Southern spell.

As always, Conroy makes the warm, sweet tidal waters of South Carolina come alive. Conroy's Charlestonians are connoisseurs of tides. Leo, who is senior in high school, takes some new friends swimming at "the exact hour that the moon had issued recall papers to all the waters of the marsh." He is also a paper boy, and readers are introduced to the social strata of Charleston via Leo's daily bicycle route tours at dawn. Leo is "a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache...). Conroy paints with words, and I quote him to show how his way with sentences truly dazzles me.

Leo is one of those characters we have to care about. Leo lost his only brother to suicide and then had a period of nervous breakdowns. He knows his mother (who was once a nun and is now the principal of Leo's high school) loved the brother more, and that he is ugly in comparison to that golden boy everyone loved. Leo finally makes some good friends of both sexes during his senior year (1969), and basically the book concentrates on that one year, interlaced with flash forwards to twenty years hence. These kids become friends for life. Some of them are on the football team, where racial integration has finally taken place. Some of them are orphans, others are blue bloods and socialites; one of them is gay, and some are African American; this variety allows for plenty of high contrast and drama.

One of my favorite characters is Leo's father, a very loving man. Late one night his father takes him down to the Battery, a place where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet and form the "beautiful immensity" of the Charleston Harbor. Leo has just gotten off probation for a very dumb crime (he was a fall guy and got stuck holding drugs for someone else). Leo's life is looking up. His father takes out two silver cups and a bottle of Jack Daniel's. He wants to share his son's first drink with him. He salutes Leo, and asks him to be a fine man, to be the best man he is capable of being. The scene cuts deep. And there are many other such fine, rich and satisfying moments in South of Broad.

There are always wounded souls in Conroy's fiction, along with the beautiful sentences. Despite some of the unlikely events and resolutions, I count myself lucky to have visited Conroy's Charleston via the pages of this novel. Its people, architecture and tidal waters clearly continue to feed his ever-loving, ever-writing soul.

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