Booksellers looking at this year’s bottom lines through parted fingers finally have a reason to smile. August brings one name (besides Oprah, Harlequin, and Dan Brown) able to pry $30 from recession-weary Americans: Pat Conroy.
The author of “The Prince of Tides,” which sold more than 5 million copies, is one of a very few writers able to bridge commercial and literary circles, and South of Broad is his first novel in 14 years. It’s a sprawling story that stretches across 20 years and both ends of the United States.
Conroy is from the more-is-more school of writing – if one analogy is good, three are better. And his lush, florid style has served him well with his fans. Minimalists can go mope at a Soho installation. Conroy is here for the storytelling, and won’t let readers go away bored. Sometimes, he tries a little too hard. As if one abused child weren’t enough; here we have a minivan’s worth. And the parallels with “The Prince of Tides” extend beyond both main characters’ love for South Carolina.
“South of Broad” is the story of teenage Charleston pariah Leopold Bloom King. After his beloved big brother committed suicide at age 13, Leo spent years in mental institutions, only to be arrested for drug possession as a ninth grader. (An older student put cocaine in Leo’s pocket.) Leo’s dad is a gentle science teacher; his mother is a James Joyce scholar, a high school principal, and, as Leo discovers as the novel opens, an ex-nun. (The Roman Catholic church is unlikely to put “South of Broad” on its summer reading list.)
Dr. King takes a dim view of her surviving offspring, who lacks the golden charm of her dead son. (Leo’s nickname among peers is the Toad.) When we meet him, Leo’s coming off parole, giving him a clean slate, as his father tells him. “Not with me, young man,” his mother snaps. (Conroy pulls back from making Leo’s mom a total monster – she’s fair-minded regarding race and class issues and an icily ferocious defender .)
But in the summer of 1969, a strange thing happens: Leo starts making friends his own age. Twins move in across the street, bringing with them an alcoholic mother and a father who could terrify your average serial killer. Leo’s mom asks him to look out for two teenage orphans, and to help support her high school’s new black football coach, whose white team roster is shrinking daily. It turns out Coach Jefferson has a son. Finally, there are Molly Huger and Chadworth Rutledge X, two high-society teens who got kicked out of their rarefied world and have to slum it at public school. This unlikely crew develops into a circle, with kindhearted Leo at its center, that deepens 20 years later, when they travel to San Francisco to rescue one of their own.
Conroy has poured in many of the themes from his earlier novels: abused and raped children, emotionally distant mothers, violent fathers, team sports as a path to manhood, and a deep love of South Carolina’s tidal country.
“South of Broad” isn’t free of clichés. In fact, its very first sentence – “Nothing happens by accident” – is one. Some of the dialogue can be painfully stilted, and characters have a tendency to be awed by how historic and momentous everything is. The plot also suffers from Conroy’s excessive generosity. One character doesn’t just become an actress; she’s an Oscar-winner who’s written as a combination of Raquel Welch and Meryl Streep. Leo’s generosity isn’t saintly; it’s almost a pathology.
However, a lonely kid who will do anything for his friends is certainly believable, and Conroy does point out the self-destructiveness that can accompany extreme selflessness.
And for every speech that clunks, there are three interchanges that will make you grin. Most important, Conroy hasn’t lost his ability to make readers care deeply about his damaged children or his beloved South Carolina. When Conroy loves something – a great teacher, a graceful old city – he’s not afraid to let you know it. And Leo is such an appealing character that it’s a pleasure to watch the Toad become a prince.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor. She blogs at dogeareddosiers.blogspot.com.