Page Four, October 2010
SOUTH OF BROAD
By Pat Conroy © 2009
Paperback, Random House Publishing Group, 514 pp.
If Pat Conroy were less of an artist, it’s conceivable that his novels might be even better than they are by giving the people in them positions that would set them in higher relief against their surroundings. His prose is like experiencing Peterskirche in Munich for the first time or an over-decorated wedding cake — almost too rich to swallow. It is remarkable his characters aren’t lost in florid descriptions of the settings and ambience they inhabit. Perhaps because their creator is able to describe them and their psyches with equal flourishes, references to art and mythology, and gilded metaphor, they have three dimensions. In this story, the city of Charleston is an ever-present backdrop with a looming but lovely persona that infuses not just the plot and people, but even their personal unconscious interiors. We’ve heard of a writer making a place a character. This is such a tale. Charleston is as important as the human actors.
South of Broad has a narrator who engages the reader’s sympathy because he has so many admirable qualities. Leo King (“Toad”) is a nearly saintly misfit in the virtually ossified society of Charleston. Broad Street signifies its rigid historical and social distinctions. Fortunately, by showing Leo to be intellectually mature and humane beyond his years, Conroy persuades his reader to accept Leo’s detailed, colorful, discerning narration.
Leo’s journey is typical Conroy in its psychological complexity, with a plot as intricate as a Celtic knot. If you hurry to see what happens next, you’re aware that you’re going to miss a dozen veiled possibilities and analyses. Conroy is a master of the “hook.” Occasionally a few sentences are either too freighted or reveal themselves as superfluous, but they are few.
The theme is primarily that of the clash the Twentieth Century forced on the old guard of genteel, proud, blinkered wealth and privilege. Somewhat in the tradition of Brideshead Revisited, there are emphatic plot lines about Roman Catholicism and its merciless impact on some lives, and of homosexuality in a place like Charleston, as well as the rest of the United States half a generation ago. In addition, the trials of integration reverberate throughout.
With a plot far too complex to summarize fairly, Conroy has placed drama back-to-back with melodrama in vivid scenes of the kind of action we might expect in a TV miniseries. The pace is almost exhausting. One almost wishes for a rest from the constant suspense — but not quite. One almost wishes for a character with fewer flaws and fears and hang-ups — but not quite. The 18th Century tag invented by Coleridge about the need for a “willing suspension of disbelief” is a requirement for reading this story.
The reader detects examples of what seem to be particularly southern sensitivities: to the distinctions of class and education, to roots, to cruelty disguised as courtesy towards the feelings and ills of others. Dialogue is witty beyond belief, reminiscent of British comedies of manners. Besides an almost incredible sense of honor that precipitates the headlong adventures of Leo and his new acquaintances who will become bosom friends, the reader has to be willing to accept that a lonely, damaged adolescent could pay such profound attention to everyone he encounters. It’s this boy’s and later this man’s extraordinary capacity for empathy and lack of self-pity that endears him to the reader. Of course, without these characteristics, the point of view would have to have been different to retain the depths revealed for the reader’s entertainment — and enlightenment.
From schoolyard bullying, religious and racial intolerance, snobbery and superstition, tenderness and horror, through hurricane and disaster, to death, destruction, and dementia chapter after chapter, it’s heavy going, but so artfully contrived, the last page is turned with regret.
South of Broad is rewarding because of its very richness of detail, its elaboration of social argument, its cast of people who are mostly larger than life. If you can believe in the selflessness and loyalty of the seventeen-year-old who begins the tale of his truly heroic struggle to survive to middle age, everything that he tells is too interesting and too beautifully expressed to give up until the not-quite satisfactory conclusion.