Saturday, January 9, 2010

'South of Broad' Shines In All Its Brutal Honesty, Glory, and Tragedy

I began Pat Conroy's latest novel, South of Broad, with high expectations. Conroy is one of my favorite southern writers, although he can't really be called just a novelist of the south. His writing is more about the human condition than it is about the south, although oftentimes it seems as though the largess that is "the south" is almost a main character in his books. Conroy cannot be separated from his roots, an ironic fact given that his family often moved during his childhood. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, when Conroy finally landed in one place -- that place being Beaufort, South Carolina -- he developed a strong bond with it. His writing reflects his devotion to South Carolina, and South of Broad is no exception.

Conroy has a tumultuous history with his family; he has written about his abusive father in many previous novels and works of nonfiction. According to the biography on his website, when his parents divorced after he was an adult and had written two novels, "his mother presented a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as 'evidence' in divorce proceedings against his father." That novel's father figure was shaped primarily by Conroy's own father, and it was a brutally honest account of the family's sufferings at the hands of that man. South of Broad is the first novel in which Conroy has been able to create a loving, supportive father figure. However, because he has long depended on friends as a kind of adopted family, the novel also is written as an ode to friendship.

Charleston's Leo Bloom King is at the cusp of his senior year in the summer of 1969. The novel begins on Bloomsday, a holiday celebrated by James Joyce fans the world over; the holiday takes place on June 16, the day which serves as the entire setting for Joyce's novel Ulysses. Leo's mother is a Joyce scholar, and his family celebrates the day for her sake; Leo was also named for the novel's protagonist, Leopold Bloom. Leo has already lived a life of tragedy before the novel begins. Losing his older brother has broken his entire family, and Leo in particular.

Charleston's Broad Street (photo courtesy of

However, in that summer of 1969 Leo finds both himself and a new group of lifelong friends. South of Broad is not only Leo's story, told in movements forward and backward from that summer, but also the story of each friend that he meets that year: Ike, a black football player who is forced to play at Leo's high school because of integration; Sheba and Trevor, beautiful twins whose mother moves them to Charleston to escape from their father; Chad and Fraser, children of a powerful Charleston lawyer; the beautiful Molly, a southern belle; Niles and Starla, orphans with a history of running away; and Betty, also an orphan and --like Ike -- in attendance at Leo's high school as a result of integration.

The motley crew finds themselves in and out of trouble with Leo's mother, the principal who requires Leo to call her "Dr. King" at school. Conroy describes their adventures from that moment in 1969 to Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The group find themselves in San Francisco at one point, and Conroy writes San Francisco just as well as he writes Charleston. It's evident that while Charleston and South Carolina are loves of Conroy's, his ability to write is not contingent upon this love (or perhaps he loves San Francisco, in all its ruinous glory, as well). Conroy is a master storyteller and descriptive writer, no matter the subject matter.

Readers new to Conroy may find themselves reading harsher material than they expect; Conroy's world is not one of make-believe, where everything turns out alright in the end. Rather, it is a world very much like the real world, where money isn't everything and looks can't buy privilege. His characters fight real demons, not the ones in the closets of our youth, but the ones who live in the hearts of evil men and inside tortured souls. If you can stomach the painful side of humanity, South of Broad will pleasantly surprise you in its hopefulness, as well.

Pat Conroy speaks about his latest novel:


  1. I enjoyed the audio version of this book a lot. All the characters were good too IMO.

  2. I listen to so few audio books, but I can imagine that this would be a nice one to listen to, as well as read. I need to listen to more, because I drive a LOT for work & it would help pass the time AND allow me to get in some additional "reading"!



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