September 5, 2009
South of Broad
South of Broad by Pat Conroy
2009 Nan A. Talese
Finished on 8/27/09
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
The publishing event of the season: The one and only Pat Conroy returns, with a big, sprawling novel that is at once a love letter to Charleston and to lifelong friendship.
Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. Leopold Bloom King, our narrator, is the son of an amiable, loving father who teaches science at the local high school. His mother, an ex-nun, is the high school principal and a well-known Joyce scholar. After Leo's older brother commits suicide at the age of thirteen, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X; and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades-from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
The ties among them endure for years, surviving marriages happy and troubled, unrequited loves and unspoken longings, hard-won successes and devastating breakdowns, and Charleston's dark legacy of racism and class divisions. But the final test of friendship that brings them to San Francisco is something no one is prepared for. South of Broad is Pat Conroy at his finest; a long-awaited work from a great American writer whose passion for life and language knows no bounds.
Last month, I was fortunate to receive an ARC of South of Broad from the publisher (through Shelf Awareness). I'd completely forgotten that I had clicked on the widget and requested a copy, and was thrilled when the book arrived. In spite of all the other ARCs and new books stacked up all over my office, I knew this was one that couldn't be put on hold. It's been 14 years since the publication of Beach Music and I had to read this right away. I dove in, completely engrossed from the opening pages, but, alas, had to set it aside for my book club read (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). I was a little concerned that the interruption might make me lose momentum and thus not fully appreciate this long-anticipated novel, but I picked right back up where I'd left off and was once again swept up in Conroy's masterful storytelling. What a book! The characters sprang to life, tugging at my heartstrings and visiting my dreams as I slept. I was a bit disappointed when the story jumped ahead two decades, leaving those young teenagers behind, their stories untold, as their adult selves raced off to San Francisco in search of one of their own. But Conroy doesn't disappoint, and brings his characters (and readers) back not only to Charleston, but to the earlier years in which their friendships grew into life-long bonds of love and loyalty.
Some have stated that Conroy's novel is "melodramatic" and "baroque in its excesses," but I loved the lush, descriptive writing, just as I did in Beach Music.
Setting the stage:
On June 16, 1969, a series of unrelated events occurred: I discovered that my mother once had been a Roman Catholic nun in the Sacred Heart order; an Atlas moving van backed into the driveway of a nineteenth-century Charleston single house across the street from ours; two orphans arrived at the gates of St. Jude's Orphanage behind the cathedral on Broad Street; and the News and Courier recorded that a drug bust had taken place on East Bay Street at the Rutledge-Bennet house. I was eighteen, with a reputation as a slow starter, so I could not feel the tectonic shift in my fate as my history began to launch of its own volition. It would be many years before I learned that your fate could scuttle up behind you, touch you with its bloody claws, and when you turn to face the worst, you find it disguised in all innocence and camouflaged as a moving van, an orphanage, and a drug bust south of Broad. If I knew then what I have come to learn, I would never have made a batch of cookies for the new family across the street, never uttered a single word to the orphans, and never introduced myself to the two students who were kicked out of Porter-Gaud School and quickly enrolled at my own Peninsula High for their senior year.
On Charleston's Ashley River:
The Ashley was the playground of my father's childhood, and the river's smell was the smell my mother opened the windows to inhale after her long labors, bearing my brother, and then me. A freshwater river lets mankind drink and be refreshed, but a saltwater river let it return to first things, to moonstruck tides, the rush of spawning fish, the love of language felt in the rhythm of the wasp-waisted swells, and a paperboy's hands covered with newsprint, thinking the Ashley was as pretty a river as ever a god could make.
On the time-honored tradition of father and son fishing together:
The Ashley 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 each 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. In silence, we fished as father and son, each watching his line.
On the loss of a brother and son:
As far as I know, no one has mentioned my brother's name in my mother's presence for years. Even now, in the toxic wake of this evening's passage, when I try to conjure up an image of my brother's face, I can summon only a ghostly, featureless portrait, half-sketched in sepia. All I remember is that Stephen was golden and beautiful, and that our losing him drove a stake into the heart of my family. Somehow we managed to survive that day, but none of us ever experienced the deliverance of recovery. I realize you can walk away from anything but a wounded soul.
Unlike in his previous novels, Conroy finally gives us a loving father. The depth of Mr. King's love for his wife and son (and his son's friends) is tender and comforting. I especially love his wise words to Leo (regarding forgiveness) in this passage:
"Here's what you don't know about time, son," Father said. "It moves funny and it's hard to pin down. Occasionally, time offers you a hundred opportunities to do the right thing. Sometimes it gives you only one chance. You've only got one chance here. I wouldn't let it slip out of your hands."
I first discovered Pat Conroy back in the summer of 1996 when I read what would become one of my all-time favorite novels of all, Beach Music. I was carried away by Conroy's lyrical prose, completely absorbed in the sweeping saga set in South Carolina. From my reading journal, dated September 1996, I wrote:
THE BEST! I think this has to be one of the very best books I've ever read. I couldn't put it down and didn't want it to end. I want to read everything Pat Conroy has ever written. He writes the most beautiful sentences I have ever read. I felt like I could see, hear, taste and smell everything he described. The characters became part of me. I laughed. I cried. What a beautiful, lyrical book. I recommend it to everyone!
Well, I didn't go on to read everything Conroy has written. And it wasn't until the summer of 2007 that I finally got around to reading The Great Santini (which, unfortunately, was a huge disappointment). What a strange coincidence that I read all three books in late August! I've been told The Prince of Tides is very good, but I very rarely read a book after seeing the movie and I watched that one years ago. I've also been told that The Lords of Discipline and The Water Is Wide are both very good. Maybe I should pencil those in for the summers of 2010 and 2011?
South of Broad has been panned by several reviewers, so I'm glad it's in my nature to ignore critics (of movies and books) and make up my own mind. And I'm pleased to say that I loved this book. So much so I'd even give it a second reading. It's no Beach Music, but it sure comes damned close. My question is will we be lucky enough to see anything else from Conroy? And if so, do we really have to wait another 14 years? I really wish his father hadn't forbidden him to learn how to type!
Go here to listen to Conroy discuss his new book, as well as hear him read from the prologue.