South of Broad by Pat Conroy. Nan A. Talese, 2009. 528 pages.
In his latest novel, South of Broad (ISBN 978-0-385-41305-3, $29.95), Pat Conroy writes with his usual sure touch of subjects and places familiar to his fans: Charleston and South Carolina’s Low Country, the upheavals in the South in the 1960s, the friction between parents and their children and the coming of age of troubled adolescents. Conroy once again fills each page, casting out before his readers, like causally offered treasures, his gifts as a writer: his ability to describe landscape, his magical mix of words and syntax, his singular ability to describe the ways and rhythms of the South. Listen as he describes Charleston on the first page of South of Broad:
“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I see the ranks of the palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of the Colonial Lake or hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures know as Charlestonians ....”
In all his books, even The Pat Conroy Cookbook, Conroy brings alive the enchantment of the marshes and woodlands surrounding the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, the humidity of the air on a hot August night, the look of the stars above Charleston Harbor, the feel of the city’s time-worn streets.
Despite these strengths, however, South of Broad is a deeply-flawed book, long on mood and description, and short on common-sense or plot. Leopold Bloom King — his Ph.D mother, who serves as principal of the local high school, has named him in honor of James Joyce’s great creation — is, like all of Conroy’s protanonists, an affable guy, a former athlete, a mild failure in finance, a failure in marriage, a man born, as Eliot once wrote, to be “an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two.”
As the story progresses, shifting in time between the late 1960s and late 1980s, Leopold Bloom King introduces us to his friends. In his previous novels, Conroy usually includes characters who are 1) persecuted because of their views on race and sexuality; and 2) sexually abused in their youth by adults. Here in South of Broad, Conroy seems to lose all control of his material, and we are led through a carnival of sexual abuse and racial strife.
Several of King’s friends have suffered sexual abuse as children. Nearly all the parents of the post-World War II generation abuse their children in some way, spiritually or physically, and it gets worse as the story stumbles along: one father is a serial killer, several parents are alcoholics, two orphans are anonymously abused, King’s brother is abused by a priest (an incident which Conroy cloaks in mystery, but which is so obvious from after the first 50 pages that the reader wonders when, not if, the priest will be found out for his crimes).
Some of the incidents and characters in this book require a suspension of belief that would support a bridge across the Atlantic. Sheba Poe, daughter of a madman and victim of extreme child abuse, beguiles the entire town of Charleston, with the exception of King’s Joyce-obsessed mother, and becomes a world-renowned movie star. Conroy makes her so loveable that we might even consider that he is making a case for child sexual abuse. Hey, he seems to be shouting at us through his hysterical prose, here’s what happens to a victim of a sadistic father. Trevor, Sheba’s gay, musically talented and verbally gifted brother, is a ridiculous character. How did he learn to speak so elegantly? How did he learn to play the piano so well? Scorned by his drunken mother and insane father, how did he manage to conquer the hearts of the citizens of San Francisco through his music?
And these are the well-developed characters. Starla Whitehead, an orphan, also abused, who is later married to King, remains an enigmatic figure throughout the book, rarely addressed except when King laments her absence. Monsignor Max Sadler, who has allowed himself to be photographed raping Steve — King’s older brother, who then commits suicide because of the attack — in no way fits the profile of the abusive priests of the last 20 years. Certainly he is not theologically stupid enough to remark to Max, as he does at the end of the book, “I’ll be with my Father in heaven, very soon.”
In another scene, King and his friends are trying to rescue Trevor from the clutches of a gay-hating man, Bunny, who weighs 400 pounds, played football for the Raiders, and has filled his decaying San Francisco house with gay men dying of AIDS to steal their social security checks (At one point, King is confronted by Bunny on a staircase, and fears for his life. Are we supposed to believe that the gargantuan Bunny can run up those stairs and then tear a man apart? For heaven’s sake ....)
Here are all the flaws that have marred some of Conroy’s other novels — the maudlin, creaky plot, the cartoon figures, the black-and-white morality of the characters, the bashing of institutions and places so beaten up by everyone else for the last 40 years that to keep hitting them seems like a sort of abuse in itself.
Thumbs down on South of Broad.