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South of Broad ~ Pat Conroy

July 21, 2009


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Publisher: Nan A. Talese

528 pages

ISBN: 9780385413053

Fitzgerald, Irving and Joyce walk into a bar…

Ok, maybe there’s no punch line, here, but part of me wants to picture all three men imparting elements of their own writing to Pat Conroy as he sits writing South of Broad.

The rolling, epic begins as a love letter to the city of Charleston in the waning summer light of 1969. Rising high school senior, Leopold Bloom, finds himself on the rebound after a tumultuous teenage period, marred by the horrific memory and subsequent drama of his older brother’s suicide. His mother and father, a Joyce scholar and science teacher respectively, have thrown themselves into a world of academics, devastated by their elder son’s departure from their world and Leo is all but abandoned, emotionally.

Despite early travesty, Leo remains a faithful lover of his fair city on the river and as his final high school year approaches, finds himself playing the part of a one-man welcoming committee to an unlikely configuration of seniors. The group consists of Trevor and Sheba Poe, beautiful and dramatic twins, both the product of two deeply troubled parents; orphaned and sullen siblings, Niles and Starla Whitehead and their friend Betty Roberts; Molly Hugar, a historically beautiful Charleston debutante and her boyfriend, Chad Rutledge, an inexcusably privileged piece of the city’s royalty, and Ike Jefferson, the son of the first black coach at the city’s public high school.

As the summer of love melts and gives way to a newer age, the band of friends find themselves submerged in drama both personal and political, battling racism, homophobia and the inbred, aristocratic caste system of Charleston’s finest. The story jumps forward several times to the early eighties, playing on the same themes, showing some but far from fundamental, changes to these obstacles.

I will lay down right here and now to tell you that I am in love with South of Broad. My only sadness is that whenever I come across a book that I truly, unfailingly adore, I can place a safe bet on the general public hating it. Already, I have read several scathing reviews by staunch Conroy supporters, or former supporters, who claim that his latest piece is a departure from his normal writing. Now, I can not swear to the validity of such statements but if it is a departure, I will be only disappointed that the previous works were not as good as South of Broad. Or, fine, maybe I’ll drop the pessimism and assume that there could possibly be better Conroy books than the one I just finished, however unlikely.

I will not tackle every review point because I would rather spend my time more efficiently praising the book than pointing out the flaws other people have subjectively found. I will, however, bring up one point as I have found it a reoccurring point of contention in reviews I disagree with throughout literature, not just in this case.

This ongoing gripe is that a book’s dialogue is too campy or overdone. “People simply do not speak that way”. I have heard this about several of my favorite books, South of Broad already one of the listed, despite its still impending release date.

For me, it comes down to this. There are books with straight characters and flat dialogue and then there are books with beautiful portrayals of characters that refuse to settle for existing as mere plot movers. There is no crime in embellishing and flaunting the more exquisite and depraved sides of human existence, especially if it makes for fun reading.

Why ask of our books, the exact same mundane, glitter-less speech we hear day in and day out? For me, there is no need for this and thankfully, I have writers like Pat Conroy and F. Scott Fitzgerald to thank for giving me something wonderful to read.

Now that my main defense is off of my chest, I feel like I can move on to the real review. True to the book’s Joycean and Homeric tendencies, it cannonballs the reader through bright, joyful escapades, soul-searching wanderings, and deeply disturbing treachery by both human hand and forces of nature, with heart wrenching twists and turns. The writing is beautiful and genuine while maintaining an element of surrealism that allows for bits of welcome absurdity.

One of my favorite elements of the story is the bond that ties the group together. All backgrounds are covered, the definition of a motley crew, and yet their impenetrable attraction to each other lasts decades. That is not to say that the group always, or even often, sees eye to eye on surfacing issues but their witty banter is certainly a highlight of Conroy’s writing. Also, the brotherly love constructed between Leo and Ike is one of my favorite literary pairings of all time.

This will not be a book for everyone as it is an intensely powerful piece. It is, though well worth the effort if you are willing to embrace the flow of the story and hold on for the ride. I will plug this as that book to help you transition from fluffy beach reading to deeper, darker stories of the impending fall season. I adored reading every last word and am crossing my fingers, hoping that Conroy’s previous books are just as fabulous.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2009 3:07 pm

    I’m a huge Conroy fan but I’m waiting to read this book until after a signing in Atlanta. It’s a little tough waiting but there’s something special about seeing the author talk about a new book and then going home and reading it.

  2. July 23, 2009 11:31 pm

    What a great review! Beach Music is one of my all-time favorites, and I’m really looking forward tot his one.

  3. July 26, 2009 4:21 pm

    This is a great review! I got this book too and was wondering if I actually wanted to read it soon and you convinced me to do so!

  4. August 3, 2009 3:57 am

    Hmmm. I went on a Conroy binge a few years ago and kind of burned out. Generally like lighter fare but this sounds worth checking out.

  5. August 3, 2009 12:36 pm

    What a compelling read! Thank you for sharing it with us 🙂

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