It's always around this time in January that New Year's resolutions start to crumble, at least for me. And yes, I know it's only been two weeks. But they've been two VERY cold weeks, and ... well, enough with the excuses. Point is, despite all my lofty intentions of reading Good Literature this year (weellll, I never said I was going to be exclusive), what do I pick up? South of Broad, by Pat Conroy (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2009).
Jacket blurb: Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. Leopold Bloom King, our narrator, is the son of an amiable, loving father who teaches science at the local high school. His mother, an ex-nun, is the high school principal and a respected Joyce scholar. After Leo's older brother commits suicide at the age of ten, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X -- and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades, from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
The ties among them endure for years, surviving marriages happy and troubled, unrequited loves and unspoken longings, hard-won successes and devastating breakdowns, as well as Charleston's dark legacy of racism and class divisions. But the final test of friendship that brings them to San Francisco is something no one is prepared for."
End result? Conroy's another decent author I've enjoyed in the past (The Lords of Discipline, loosely based on the author's own years at The Citadel, is a favorite re-read of mine), this is his first new novel in more than a decade ... and while I wouldn't go so far as to say I was disappointed, I also wasn't overly impressed. The novel tells the story of a young Charleston boy/ man, from the start of his senior year in high school in 1969 up through Hurricane Hugo and its aftermath in 1989 (albeit not in linear fashion). Our narrator is named after the protagonist in James Joyce's Ulysses by his formidable mother, high school principal Lindsay King. We learn two things almost immediately: first, Leo (and quite probably Pat Conroy) is absolutely besotted with Charleston. OK, I've never been, so perhaps this is normal, but it seemed a bit over the top (though admittedly, after Lords of Discipline, not completely unfamiliar).
Second, and more significant to the novel's plot, is that Leo and his family have been, as the jacket indicates, utterly shattered by his brother's suicide. And understandably so; Steve (Stephen Dedalus King, of course) was a golden boy, a perfect brother and son, and only ten years old ... and it was Leo who found him, dead in the bathtub after somehow slitting his wrists and his throat. The "why" doesn't come out till the very end, though astute readers may have a good suspicion early on. When the story opens, it's been 9 years, and Leo's just now rebuilding some sort of life for himself, after several years in a mental hospital, followed by an arrest and probation (a star football player planted cocaine on him at a party, and Leo refused to name the guy). His principal-mother makes it abundantly clear he'll never make up for his crimes, though this may really just mean he'll never be Stephen. Nonetheless, she instructs him to take several newcomers to school under his wing: the aforementioned Poe twins, ethereal, non-Charlestonian creatures who've just moved in across the street; the Whiteheads, carted in each day from their orphanage; Chad and Molly, who transfer to Peninsula High after being kicked out of a ritzy private school for cocaine; and (curiously unmentioned on the dust jacket) Ike Jefferson, son of Peninsula's first black football coach and Leo's co-captain on the team.
With the jacket blurb and the above lead-in, it's not too surprising that this motley crew of (mostly) outsiders become fast friends, and remain so twenty years later. Not surprising, but also not especially believable -- and too overly dramatic. I've been putting off finishing this review for a while, so without further delay: worth a read on a slow day, but not especially memorable.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.