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South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Fred Grimm
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The 1989 storm that wrecked Charleston hardly matches the novel's emotional turmoil.


South of Broad

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 528 pages
Author: Pat Conroy
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-08
Amazon

Pat Conroy's first novel in 14 years offers readers great dollops of psychological distress against a backdrop of Charleston society. Hurricane Hugo tears through South of Broad, but the 1989 storm that wrecked Charleston hardly matches the novel's emotional turmoil.

Conroy has drawn characters of such devastated psyches that his novel brings to mind a concept for a reality TV show: Toss so many emotionally damaged contestants together in a famously uptight antebellum city. Then sit back and see who comes undone.

He writes of a high-school clique, nine friends close since their senior year in 1969, the year when Charleston schools finally capitulated to court-ordered integration. They were unfettered by racism or homophobia, with two blacks and an extremely out gay fellow in their circle. Still Chad, the least tolerant among them, looks down on everyone, clinging to the pathological sense of entitlement inherent among the aristocracy that inhabits the lovely old mansions south of Broad Street.

The rigidity of Charleston society, its resistance to change, provides an undercurrent throughout the novel, but this is a story about disparate friends coping with the hurts of childhood. It's also an epic exploration of wretched parenting.

Among these 11 we have a father who was a bigamist and a drunken, neglectful, mendacious mother. Another mother, impregnated at 13, murdered her husband. Another father, his values rooted in the 19th century, disparages his daughter. And then we have a psychopathic killer of a dad who has dedicated his evil life to tormenting his kids.

Various members of the clique have been raped as children or abandoned by their families and consigned to a Charleston orphanage. And a pedophile priest floats around the periphery.

At the center of the novel is Leo King, saintly in his honor and loyalty to his friends but unloved by his mother, who still prefers his older brother, a suicide. The brother's inexplicable death looms as the crushing, lifelong burden for Leo, who during the course of the novel spends two stints in a mental ward.

Back in his unhinged days in high school, Leo was described by a psychologist as "terrified, depressed, anxious, ashamed, totally confused and possibly suicidal." That's just page 67, with 467 more pages of mental anguish to come.

Leo's overwrought sense of honor begins to look like martyrdom when he marries one of his nutcase friends on the slim chance that he can improve her unhappy life. The wife, instead, disappears for months at a time, occasionally calling her husband to taunt him about her sexual exploits.

A plot unfolds amid all this human wreckage as the grown friends, including a troubled sex goddess of a movie star, have a sort of "Big Chill" 20-year reunion before embarking together on a dangerous mission to San Francisco to rescue their estranged gay friend from the clutches of a thieving scoundrel.

Whether a reader enjoys an unrelenting exploration into wounded psyches is, of course, a matter of taste. What makes South of Broad bearable for those who don't particularly enjoy such journeys is Conroy's prose, with its vivid descriptions of Charleston and the city's stifling social order. "It is a city of contrivance, of blueprints; devotion to a pattern that is like a bent knee to the nature of beauty itself."

And South of Broad, for all the sad characters, is a funny book. Conroy's characters fairly burst with repartee. In another life, he could have written dialogue for Hepburn and Tracy:

"Anglicans teach that drinking is the fastest way to approach God. Charlestonians think it's the only way. What's wrong with our theology?"

"Join us in a drink and we'll talk about it, Chad."

"Let me do the honor. I'll even bring it to your chair."

"I like it when you're sycophantic, Leo. It's so rare these days."

"I try not to make it a habit, Chad. You like it too much."

"I think it's the natural order of things."

Conroy, author of four previous novels including the bestsellers Beach Music and The Prince of Tides, two memoirs, a biography and a cookbook, again pours on sentimentality as thick as Frogmore Stew. He so obviously loves his characters and all their foibles. Some readers might relish a crueler turn.

Fred Grimm is a Miami Herald columnist.

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