Back to the garden
Conroy gracefully captures his beloved South, but his characters are a bit rusty
In the great Southern tradition of storytelling, the city of Charleston, S.C., is the principal “character’’ in Pat Conroy’s new novel, “South of Broad.’’ Like the Southern Gothic masters, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Conroy understands that a compelling sense of place will lend grace to his narrative, inhabiting the minds of his readers like the mournful strains of an old folk song. For Faulkner, it was the mythical Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, and for O’Connor, the mean little towns and desolate rural stretches of Georgia. Conroy’s Charleston is “the kingdom of snake handlers and clay eaters and moonshiners, where the farmland itself was stringy, stone-pocked, and unforgiving.’’
The South of American literature is a humid, overgrown, degenerative profusion - the Garden after the fall. In Conroy’s work, like his contemporaries Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown, the garden contains an antebellum mansion, shiny and white on the outside, but destroyed by creeping vines and dry rot from within. It’s the amortization of America’s original sin - slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow - a mortgage that will never be repaid.
At the center of Conroy’s tale is 18-year-old Leopold Bloom King. Leo, named for the hero in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,’’ is struggling with the suicide of his beloved older brother, Steve, who has been dead for several years. Leo has spent that time “among drugs and needles and psychological testing and shrinks and therapists and priests,’’ coming to terms with his grief. He is buoyed, however, by his ardent Roman Catholic faith and his early morning routine, delivering the News and Courier. “The smell of smoke from the chimney of our house was stronger than either the rivers or the marshes and made the airwaves above the neighborhood as dark-scented and fragrant as a night garden.’’
At the outset of his senior year at Peninsula High in 1969, Leo is an ugly duckling who has never been on a date or had a best friend, and whose domineering mother, an ex-nun, had always favored her older son. But Leo’s luck is about to change. On June 16, the “Bloomsday’’ of Joyce’s novel, the glamorous, doomed Poe twins, Sheba and Trevor, move in across the street; Leo is sent to the local orphanage to befriend siblings Niles and Starla Whitehead; and he makes the acquaintance of Ike Jefferson, the son of Peninsula’s first black football coach. Leo also encounters Charleston society when his mother forces him on 18-year-old Chadworth Rutledge X and his girlfriend, Molly Huger. Leo is from the wrong side of Broad Street, of the “Nothing Kings,’’ and during this uncomfortable meeting he notes, “Charleston could produce men and women so aristocratic they could smell the chromosomes of a passing tramp in the armpits of a tennis-playing Ravenel.’’
Another element of Southern Gothic is violence - sudden, inexplicable mayhem visited upon the innocent and the evil alike. Conroy’s story moves back and forth between 1969 and 1989. The friends stick together, but as their lives progress, tragedy prevails: AIDS, alcoholism, racism, madness, and murder. Conroy employs many of the stock characters of the genre, including religious hypocrites, broken down drunks, even a feces-eating homicidal maniac. But Conroy hasn’t published a novel in 14 years and he’s a little rusty. His characters veer into caricature far too often - Sheba Poe sleeps her way to the top in Hollywood, and her gay brother, Trevor, is predictably flamboyant. A number of unlikely coincidences defy the story’s logic, and too many significant events, as well as the novel’s climax and denouement, are left to occur off stage or are quickly glossed over.
Conroy also commits the novice’s offense of trying to bury exposition in the dialogue.
“We can be around him when he dies,’’ Fraser says. “We can help him die.’’
“I’ve got a plane,’’ Sheba says. “A Learjet. Another gift from the producer.’’
“What’ve we gotten ourselves into, Leo? This time out here will change us forever. It’ll mark us in ways we don’t know.’’
People don’t talk like that, and it’s beneath a writer of Conroy’s talent to make them do so. Perhaps the most bothersome element is the novel’s hero, Leo King. One defining characteristic of Southern “grit lit’’ is the moral ambiguity of its protagonists. In recognizing the evil that resides within them, characters such as the Misfit in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find’’ acknowledge that it’s their weakness, their willful and repetitive sin that makes them human. The grown-up Leo drinks too much and commits an occasional infidelity, but his static, goody-two-shoes persona is out of place in this idiom. Conroy misses his mark and mixes metaphors when he writes of Leo, “In the great timepiece of my life, my dancecard was filled up every hour, my routine as set as a well-made cake.’’
What endures here is Conroy’s depiction of his home ground, the place that has imparted grace to his life and work. “As the tide receded, the oysters would be locked tight, retaining a shot-glass-full of seawater that would hold them until the next full tide; the flounders hidden in the mudflats; the mullets flashing in quicksilver sea grass; the small sharks nosing around for carrion; the blue herons straight-legged and heraldic in their motionless hunt; the snowy egrets - the only creatures in the Low Country whose name invoked winter - staring at the shallows for a quick run of minnows.’’
Jay Atkinson’s latest books, “Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac’s Lost Highway and My Search for America,’’ and a collection of stories, “Tauvernier Street,’’ are due next year. He teaches journalism at Boston University. Contact him at email@example.com.