The literary world lost another popular figure last Friday with the death of bestselling author Pat Conroy. In addition to Flannery O’Connor, Pat Conroy bears responsibility for my love of Southern fiction and my attraction to the genre’s dark themes.
It started — as with most of his fans, I’d imagine — with The Prince of Tides. Although it has probably been close to three decades since I read the novel as a teenager (a re-read may be in my future), it’s one of those books that has stayed with me since its 1986 publication. That’s probably because of the 1991 film starring Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte, who captured all too well the emotional devastation of abuse, mental illness and familial dysfunction in Conroy’s prose. His subsequent novel Beach Music (1995), which took Conroy ten years to write in the aftermath of his mother’s suicide, had just as much of an impact on me.
Next to The Prince of Tides, my favorite Pat Conroy book (of those I’ve read) is South of Broad. Spanning several decades in the lives of a group of close-knit high school friends in Charleston, South Carolina (Conroy’s home turf), each character brings personal baggage to this story. Like his previous works, there’s suicide, abuse in every form (physical, emotional, sexual), alcoholism, racism, infidelity, unrequited love, mental illness, celebrity, homophobia, and probably a few more -isms that I’ve forgotten since reading this one.
(Also, it contains more than a fair share of unpolitically-correct language, which reflects what I’d imagine would have been common dialogue in the Deep South during the tumultuous ’60s. In these more enlightened times — presidential election campaigns notwithstanding — reading such language can be a bit jarring, especially when listening to the audio, which I did.)
The story opens in 1969, in Charleston, South Carolina, and is narrated by Leo King. A high school senior, Leo’s family has been shattered by his older brother’s suicide, an event after which Leo understandably is never the same. Each member of the King family deals with their loss – and personal demons – in their own way.
An innocuous request from Leo’s mother, the school principal, to befriend several new students at school – orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead as well as the King’s new neighbors, twins Sheba and Trevor Poe – sets in motion a chain of events, friendships, and alliances during the next 20 years. When they come together after years apart to help one of their own, they are tested and changed by everything that they know (or thought they knew) about each other and themselves.
Yeah, it sounds a little The Big Chill-ish (also set in South Carolina!) and in the hands of a less talented writer, this could easily fall flat. But this is a Pat Conroy novel that we’re talking about here. The man knew how to write, and he knew his material – the streets of Charleston (South of Broad takes its name from a section of Charleston that is home to most of that town’s elite and society folk), the Low Country, the food (oh my God, the food!), the class distinctions, the dysfunctional families and the dark subject matter. Even with some of the heavy topics, there are parts of South of Broad that are rather funny (Leo’s mother’s groupie-like devotion and downright fangirl-ism of author James Joyce, for one).
It’s not a perfect novel. Throughout the story, Sheba is repeatedly described as being exceptionally beautiful, perfect in appearance in every possible way. She has an aura around her, one that she uses to her advantage in her chosen career. At times, Conroy’s superlative prose about Sheba struck me as occasionally over the top (perhaps intentional, as Sheba herself is over the top, but slightly annoying in parts.)
This can be forgiven. Far better to remember Pat Conroy for his unparalleled ability to bring the rippling, tide-like emotional erosion from life’s darkest and most tragic of subjects to the page. His talent will be missed.
Have you read any of Pat Conroy’s books? Which ones resonated most with you?
~ Melissa F.