My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pat Conroy’s “South of Broad” is a love song to Charleston with blood on the sheet music.
As he walks toward the Cooper River in 1990, six months after Hurricane Hugo tore into his beloved city, narrator Leo King ponders the city’s rebuilding and healing, and the coming spring: “Since the day I was born, I have been worried that heaven would never be half as beautiful as Charleston.”
Like his counterpart Tom Wingo in “The Prince of Tides” (1986), Leopold Bloom King is a psychologically wounded man. While Wingo’s issues focus on a brutal family secret, the death of an older brother, and a suicidal sister, King is haunted by the suicide of his older brother Steve. King worshipped that brother, the golden boy and their mother’s overt favorite. “Looking back,” King tells us, “I think the family suffered a collective nervous breakdown after we buried Steve.”
King drifted between that collective breakdown and 1969 when he found himself fulfilling the role of anchorman in a diverse group of high school seniors: Ike Jefferson, one of the first black students to play on the high school football team; Sheba and Trevor Poe, the dramatic and talented twins who live across the street with an alcoholic mother; the mountain-born orphans Starla and Niles Whitehead, who hope one day to be re-united with their mother; and from the aristocratic world South of Broad Street, Molly Huger and brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge.
That these students appeared in King’s life on June 16—Bloomsday, for those who revere James Joyce—was to some extent orchestrated by his mother with the helping hand of fate. After all, his mother who was both the high school principal and a Joycean scholar named him after Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s protagonist in “Ulysses.” And after all, as King saw it, there are no coincidences; “fate comes at you cat-footed, unavoidable, and bloodthirsty.”
Conroy portrays the meeting and evolving relationships between King and this disparate collection of variously angry, snobbish, haunted and broken souls with humor and realism. Some commentators have panned Conroy’s dialogue as unnatural. Yet, one might ask what “normal” could possibly sound like for people weaned on tragedy and/or destined for it.
“The Prince of Tides” unfolds primarily in flashbacks. Though he’s looking back on his life, Leo King narrates “South of Broad” in a nonlinear sequence. Parts one and four are set in the late 1960s. Parts two, three and five are set in the late 1980s. While frustrating, this structure is not fatal. Yet, details about the characters’ maturation into adults is sketchy and the action screeches to halt before the climatic Part Five when Conroy pulls his readers back to the high school world of race and class tensions and football.
What worked to perfection in “The Prince of Tides” is a little dissonant in “South of Broad.” Conroy’s trademark soaring language develops a cohesive sense of place that wonderfully contrasts with and serves as a stable foundation for the nasty events and broken people. Yet some of the poetry is ponderous. The familiar storyline of dysfunctional people coping with a tragedies is again compelling. Yet it stumbles somewhat on the novel’s structure and melodramatic tendencies.
When Leopold Bloom King is nine years old, he finds a dead god named Stephen Daedalus King in a bathtub of bloody water. While the method behind the madness is a little tired and the music a little too much in a minor key, between Steve’s suicide and the novel’s last moments on a Bloomsday many years in the future, there is a still strong and memorable story.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire”