By Chris Bohjalian
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
SOUTH OF BROAD
By Pat Conroy
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 514 pp. $29.95
When I was on Page 322 of Pat Conroy's 514-page new novel, "South of Broad," I began to feel that the characters were crying a lot, which wouldn't have bothered me if the characters were children. They're not. So, I began noting in the margins each time an adult let loose with the waterworks. The finding? Characters cry, sob, tear, weep, wail and well up on the following pages: 322, 330, 340, 354, 367, 382, 393, 395, 396, 403, 418, 419, 420, 429, 439, 440, 444, 448 (twice), 452, 462, 463, 465, 466, 467, 477, 490 (twice) and 493. In addition to the main players in the novel, Meryl Streep is tearful on Page 447 and God weeps on Page 476. Bear in mind, these are only the tears I tracked in the last 200 pages of the tale. Hurricane Hugo, the storm that ravaged Charleston, S.C., in 1989 and figures prominently in the novel's final pages, might not have dumped quite as much water on the city as Conroy's characters.
It's possible that the sobbing and sniveling occasionally felt inauthentic to me because I am a priggish New Englander who is uncomfortable with what may be a Southern penchant for drama. But as a novelist, I know all too well that there are few easier ways to wrest sniffles from a reader than to have a couple of real men cry like babies in each other's arms or a good woman stoically sniff back her tears. Been there, done that.
In all fairness, "South of Broad" is a big sweeping novel of friendship and marriage -- and, perhaps, vintage Pat Conroy. In other words, a lot of that crying is justified.
The tale begins on June 16, 1969, when high school junior Leopold Bloom King is asked by his mother, the school principal, to befriend some students who will be starting there the following September. That day he meets the companions he will take into adulthood: dirt-poor brother and sister orphans, Starla and Niles Whitehead, who are handcuffed to chairs; preternaturally charismatic twins Sheba and Trevor Poe; aristocratic brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge, Carolinians of impeccable breeding; Chad's equally patrician girlfriend, Molly Huger; and Ike Jefferson, among the first African Americans to be integrated into the public school.
They will all become the greatest of friends, class and race lines becoming irrelevant except as good-natured ribbing. As adults, Leo will marry Starla, Chad will marry Molly and Niles will marry Fraser. (Fans of the classic TV sitcom "Frasier" are going to pause on the title of Chapter 12. I know I did.) Sheba will go to Hollywood and become a movie star with a mouth like a sewer and the sort of libido that men always want in their women, while Trevor will go to San Francisco where he will become the toast of the gay community until he winds up HIV-positive.
It would be impossible to summarize all that occurs to the group in this space, but suffice to say their adventures are extensive and, often enough, tear-jerking. They win (and lose) big football games, they venture to San Francisco to retrieve Trevor when he is ill, they try to protect themselves from Sheba and Trevor's psychotic killer of a father. Leo frets over his estranged wife, a woman damaged beyond repair by her childhood as an orphan. And then there's that hurricane.
Meanwhile, adding a penumbra of sadness to Leo's story is the suicide of his elder brother. Leo was only 8 when he found his brother, "his arteries severed, dead in the bathtub we both shared, my father's straight razor on the tiles of our bathroom floor." Leo will spend a large chunk of his childhood first in mental institutions and then taking the fall for a crime he didn't commit.
Much is made of the idea that Leo's mother has named him after James Joyce's Leopold Bloom and all of these friends find each other on the very day when Joyce's "Ulysses" is set. But "South of Broad" seems to be a reworking of the Joyce masterpiece only in that Leo learns "the power of accident and magic in human affairs . . . the unanswerable powers of fate, and how one day can shift the course of ten thousand lives."
I should note that even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy's heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish. Conroy is an immensely gifted stylist, and there are passages in the novel that are lush and beautiful and precise. No one can describe a tide or a sunset with his lyricism and exactitude. My sense is that the millions of readers who cherish Conroy's work won't be at all disappointed -- and nor will anyone who owns stock in Kleenex.
Bohjalian is the author of 12 novels, including "Midwives," "The Double Bind" and "Skeletons at the Feast."