Riptide Of a Story Dazzles the Emotions

BEACH MUSIC

By Pat Conroy

Doubleday

628 pp., $27.50

'Beach Music," Pat Conroy's magnificent, long-awaited new novel (his last, "The Prince of Tides," was published in 1986), is an absolute attic of a book. It's overstuffed. Seemingly every memory, character, place, and event from not only Conroy's life, but from the lives of most of the people he's ever met are in it.

And as in a proper attic, you wander through "Beach Music" dazed and fascinated by the odd, clashing richness of the several lifetimes it contains. There is Conroy's own family, including abusive father, dying mother, and supportive siblings; the lush locations from Rome, Italy to South Carolina's coast; and defining moments in time, from high school to the Holocaust to Vietnam.

All of it, of course, told by Conroy in prose so distinctive that its descriptive adjectives ought to be issued their own Conroy trademark: lyrical, overblown, romantic, dramatic. Conroy writes as if he gets paid by the adjective, and if that were true, "Beach Music" would make him a very rich man.

He has said in interviews that he writes to save himself. He writes to make sense of that child's curse yet writer's blessing, an abusive childhood.

(His father, the bullying officer so unforgettably portrayed in "The Great Santini," once admitted to Conroy, "Son, I should have beat you more. You'd be a better writer." Conroy replied, "If you beat me much more, I'd be Shakespeare.")

It is not as Shakespeare but as food and travel writer Jack McCall that Conroy appears in "Beach Music." McCall and his toddler daughter Leah have fled to Rome to start a new life a year after McCall's wife Shyla has committed suicide back home in South Carolina. McCall flees not only those memories, but the strangling grip of his family and friends.

News that his mother is dying sends McCall back to South Carolina, where he and his outrageous, loving, black-humored brothers cope with mom, their abusive and alcoholic father, and especially the antics of their mentally unstable brother, John Hardin. (In one quintessential-Conroy scene, John Hardin holds the whole town at bay until the brothers meet with his demand that they all jump naked off of a bridge.)

Meanwhile, former friends also make demands. Mike, now a famous Hollywood producer, wants McCall and his old girlfriend to write a script about their pasts, including a dark, Vietnam protest involving another friend, now running for governor. Still another friend is on the run from his Vietnam experience as well as an unspeakable betrayal by his own father.

His wife's past still torments him. Shyla, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, could not bear the weight of her parents' experience. In some of Conroy's strongest and most controlled writing to date, various characters recount Nazi crimes past imagining.

Conroy is able to pull off such wide sweeps of time, place, and emotion. One minute you're laughing out loud at his relentless, ironic humor; or wallowing in the sights and smells and tastes of a sweet innocent time along a southern coast. And yet turn a few pages, and you're lightheaded with horror at being plunged into the darkness of a Nazi torture chamber.

"Beach Music" is a professional and very personal triumph for Pat Conroy, who unashamedly pours his troubled life into his work. It is Conroy's great gift as a writer, and perhaps his salvation as a man, that his battles and his books end not with bitterness or defeat, but in the shining, healing light of hope and forgiveness.

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