On South of Broad by Pat Conroy – East Hampton
One of the most common remarks I hear about Pat Conroy is that “he takes a hundred words to say what he could have in ten.” While that may be true, those words are so lovely that I wish he had taken even longer to describe the South as he knows it. Some writers are great story-tellers and some are masters of language. Pat Conroy is both.
I loved The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, two previous novels by Pat Conroy. His writing, including his newest novel South of Broad, captures the psychological complexity of family relationships in a way that is both unique and contemporary.
Since my daughter moved the Charleston, where South of Broad takes place and where Pat Conroy lives, I have spent many pleasurable weeks there. Conroy captures every detail of this unique city, from its magnificent architecture to the sweet and salty scents blowing off the harbor to the dark history of the slaves on whose backs both the city and the harbor were built.
In many ways, Charleston itself is the most intriguing character in the novel. With the exception of the narrator named Leopold Bloom King, an outcast turned gossip columnist, and his mother, a nun and James Joyce fan turned high school principal, the other characters seem at once stereo-types and unrealistic. There is also a far-fetched sub-plot, in which Leo and his friends go to San Francisco in search of a childhood acquaintance dying of AIDS. In another sub-plot, also stretching the limits of credulity, the father of this dying boy is a psycho murderer who stalks the hero and his friends, leaving happy faces with tears painted in red nail-polish as his calling card. Even as I report it here, I want to say: “Aw, c’mon Pat…that’s ridiculous.
If one can suspend reality, however, this book is a great read. I found myself loving the magnanimous and fatalistic Leo, the beautiful language, and the genuine hilarity on every page. It is operatic in its plotting, running the gamut from suicide, rape, child-abuse, AIDS, racism, hurricanes, mental illness, betrayal, lust, and murder to friendship, love and sex. And, of course, the literary references to Ulysees throughout the novel, starting with the obvious key characters named Leopold Bloom and Molly, are great fun.