South of Broad

It’s been 14 years between novels for Pat Conroy, a son of the South whose love of his native landscape is matched only by his obsession with the grim strength of family ties. Much of that darkness rises from experiences in his own life. He mined his explosive relationship with his father, a severe and controlling ex-Marine, for his debut novel, The Great Santini. He followed up with The Lords of Discipline, which scandalized his alma mater, The Citadel, with its unflattering portrayal. With The Prince of Tides, a bestselling novel turned A-list movie with Barbra Streisand, he cemented his spot in popular culture.

This summer, Conroy’s back, and back on familiar turf with South of Broad, which, depending on the eye of the beholder, is either a sprawling saga brimful of characters and emotion and sense of place, or a period melodrama with a pretty travelogue thrown in.

Litmus test:

“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like a hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness every day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic.”

That’s Leopold Bloom King, the narrator of South of Broad, named for the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Leo’s a sweet, messed-up kid who, at 18 years old, already has a felony drug bust and a stint in a mental ward on his résumé. We meet him on June 16th, known to Joyceans as Bloomsday, the 24-hour span during which the author’s famously impregnable novel takes place. The year is 1969, a tipping point for the civil rights movement and the coming countercultural revolution. Both will rock Leo’s staid and stately hometown of Charleston.

Leo’s troubles began a decade before, the day he discovered the dead body of his charismatic ten-year old brother, Steve, a bloody suicide. The shock all but destroyed the King family. Leo’s mother, a high school principal and a perfectionist, retreated into a frosty reserve. His father, a science teacher, struggled to fill the resulting gap. Leo himself went into a prolonged freefall. As we meet him on this Bloomsday, the lonely boy with the outlandish name is about to break free of the string of shrinks and probation officers who have marked his adolescence.

“Because I was a timid boy, I grew fearful and knew deep in my heart the world was out to get me,” Leo tells us in the first chapter. “Before the summer of my senior year, the real life I was always meant to lead lay coiled and ready to spring in the hot Charleston days that followed.”

That real life is set in motion as Leo reaches out, all in a single day, to an oddball collection of kids. There’s Niles and Starla, a pair of runaways who, when Leo meets them, are dressed in bright orange jumpsuits and handcuffed to their chairs at St. Jude’s Orphanage. Next, Leo bakes cookies to welcome the mysterious and seductive twins Trevor and Sheba Poe, who move in across the street. And at lunch at the country club Leo is recruited to help Chad, Fraser, and (Joyce alert!) Molly, society kids caught using drugs, learn the ropes at their new school. Add in a phone call from a nun, which reveals to Leo a stunning secret about his parents’ marriage, and it’s been almost as eventful a day as Leopold and Stephen’s.

All this makes for a fast start and a dense read. Just three weeks later, as we’re still sorting out who’s who and what’s what, Conroy shunts the whole gang 20 years into the future. It’s 1989, and Leo’s now a gossip columnist for Charleston’s local newspaper. The ragtag group he assembled has become the core social force in his life. Bonds have formed. Marriages have taken place. Children have been born. When Trevor, one of the glamorous Poe twins, goes missing in his adopted city of San Francisco, the whole gang heads off to California to save him.

The scope of the story blows wide open, and Conroy dives into the themes and characters that, from book to book to book, have a hold — or stranglehold — on him. There’s physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, racism and class warfare, stalking and rape and murder, and, in the revelations about Steve’s suicide, some very dark and rather familiar ground.

There’s also, amid a hefty bit of overwriting, some truly lovely stuff. Here Leo, the southern boy, nails California in two short sentences:

“The West is both a great thirst and a dry, weatherless curiosity. In California, the mad, deep breath of deserts is never far away.”

It’s Conroy’s trademark prose, cinematic and sensitive. It makes you wish he’d stop swinging for the fences all the time, stop loading every last clause of nearly every sentence with so much stuff.

In the end, though, when the drama has played out and the spectacle skids to a stop, when Leo and his friends return to their lives in Charleston, South of Broad turns out to be about love and acceptance, understanding, and that thing Conroy seems to seek most of all, forgiveness.