No one does dysfunctional Southern family drama better than the man who gave us “The Prince of Tides,” “Beach Music,” and “The Great Santini.”
Therein lies the problem with Pat Conroy’s new book, “South of Broad.” He’s told this story before – and he’s told it much better than the mess he’s offering this time around.
We’ve met boys like sensitive Leopold Bloom King, the book’s main character. Leo’s tranquil life in Charleston, South Carolina, is forever changed when he discovers his brother Steve’s body in the bathtub. Steve’s suicide sends young Leo over the edge, into a psychiatric hospital and eventually to a stint in juvenile detention.
Conroy used a brother’s death and a sister’s suicidal tendencies in “Prince of Tides” as the backdrop of the main character’s angst.
The secret behind his brother’s suicide is not made known to Leo until the end of the book, leaving Conroy only a few pages to resolve the conflict and set Leo on the path to a recovery.
Conroy’s given us cruel, distant mothers like Lindsay King, a woman more devoted to the Catholic Church and author James Joyce than her own family. Dr. King, who did her dissertation on Joyce’s great book, Ulysses, is the principal at Leo’s high school. She’s a cold fish with no kind words for Leo – ever.
Conroy does nothing to humanize her as the story moves from Leo’s teenage anguish through his mid-30s. Dr. King’s selfishness is more powerful than her maternal instinct, and Leo suffers mightily for it. No wonder the young Leo is a mess and the middle-aged Leo can’t find his way out of a bizarre marriage to a truly unbalanced woman.
Instead of the brutal father found in “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy gives us Jasper King, a saint of a man. Leo figures out early on that he can never live up to his father’s image, adding yet another piece of baggage to his life. Jasper was such a saint that I wondered how he could have ever loved an iceberg like Lindsay.
Along with the dysfunctional family, Conroy also revisits his love of sports, placing Leo on a football team struggling with the issue of segregation in 1969.
Then, there’s the cast of supporting characters: the unattainable debutante, a wild girl with big dreams, her openly gay brother, orphans, a prep school boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a villain who would frighten the devil himself. Oh, yeah, Hurricane Hugo, the early AIDS crisis in San Francisco and sordid, illicit sex also figure prominently in the story.
Beside recycling characters and situations we already know, Conroy resorts to some pretty incredible story lines and improbable plot twists that would be more appropriate for a cheap romance novel.
Conroy has covered almost every one of these issues before – and better than he does in “South of Broad.” I only kept reading because of the descriptive prose sprinkled among the outrageous drama. When Conroy turns his talent to his beloved low country, he shines.
Here’s a passage describing an evening of fishing with Leo and his father.
“The Ashley [River] was a hiding place and a workshop and a safe house for my father and me to be alone with each other, to bask in the pleasure of other’s company, and to cure all the hurts the world brought to us. At first we fished wordlessly and let the primal silence of the river translate us into no more than drifting shapes. The tide was a poem that only time could create, and I watched it stream and brim and make its steady dash homeward, to the ocean. The sun was sinking fast, and a laundry line full of cirrus clouds stretched along the western sky like boas of white linen, then surrendered to a shiver of gold that haloed my father’s head. The river held the gold shine for a brief minute, then went dark as the moon rose up behind us. ...”
If he can write prose like this, then why can’t he create something new under the Southern sun?
South of Broad
By Pat Conroy
Random House. Fiction.
$29.95. 512 pp.
One out of five stars
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