SOUTH OF BROAD by Pat Conroy

Book Quote:

“As she weeps, I observe Sheba and think she has invented herself out of masks so numerous she can no longer select her own legitimate face out of the museum she has cultivated to hide herself in. Because she is an actress, she has fashioned an entire career out of identity theft. Sitting there, I find myself believing her completely, yet not really knowing if she has spoken the truth. It is difficult to trust a woman who has built herself out of a house of exits and not a marked single entrance.”

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie (OCT 21, 2009)

After a fourteen year hiatus, author Pat Conroy is back with a long awaited novel, South of Broad. His last novel Beach Music was quite good, as is this latest offering. However, to my mind, nothing beats Conroy’s Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, although South of Broad comes close. There are similarities in all Conroy’s novels – his characters, their lives, dilemmas, and the author’s obvious love for the American South. The common thread which weaves its way throughout his work are autobiographical elements. According to a recent magazine interview, Conroy states that he writes from his own life experiences, which might explain why many of his characters have such emotionally traumatic childhoods. Conroy, the first of seven children, was born into a military family, and was the victim of his father’s violence and abuse from a young age. The military life – his father was a US Marine Corps pilot – also pushed the family from post to post, and Conroy claims to have moved 23 times before he was 18. When he was 15 he moved to Beaufort, SC, and began his love affair with the South. He is also a graduate of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, a school featured in many of his novels.

So, given the autobiographical nature of Conroy’s tales, the reader might recognize a personality or two, or an adventure/mystery/scenerio inserted in the narrative which are reminiscent of a previous book. However, while certain themes may seem similar, the storylines are very different and Conroy’s novels are not at all repetitious. In fact, they are unusually original, laced with suspense, and Conroy’s extraordinary sensitivity to human frailty. He is  a masterful writer.

Charleston, South Carolina’s “South of Broad” Street is the historic city’s most desirable and distinctive area. It was in the grand old homes, flanked by moss-laden oaks, magnolia trees, sculpted gardens, and picturesque street scenes that “George Washington slept, and Robert E. Lee and Teddy Roosevelt dined and socialized.”  South of Broad is also the demarcation line between classes. The wealthy, and pedigreed live here. They always have. Everyone else, those whose ancestors do not date back to antebellum times, are never really accepted here – at least not as social equals, whatever their accomplishments may be. The city’s rigid class system plays a part in the storyline, influencing the characters’ destinies.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks, between 1969 and the period in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo ravaged the area, and the scourge of HIV/AIDS was finally acknowledged as a pandemic disease.

Leopold Bloom King, named after the hero of James Joyce’s protagonist in Ulysses,  is this novel’s lead character and it’s narrator. His mother, Dr. King, is a James Joyce scholar, a high school principal, and, as Leo discovered at age seventeen, an ex-nun who left the convent to marry her girlhood sweetheart. She thought the name for her second son apt, giving her literary proclivities. Leo’s father, a gentle science teacher, put up with a lot from his pious, disciplinarian wife, whom he has always adored. The star of the King family is Leo’s big brother Steve – the golden boy – blond, charismatic, smart, athletic. In Leo’s eyes he could do no wrong. He hero-worshipped him, and he never minded taking second place to his brother in his mother’s affections. Steve was “solicitous and protective” of Leo, which made the little boy love him even more.

Leo was no star back then. He was rather ordinary to those who did not know him well, including his mother. He was shy, a very late bloomer who had a difficult time making friends. The kids at school called him “Toad” because of his thick glasses.

He was only nine-year old when he discovered his brother’s dead body…”his arteries severed, dead in the bathtub we both shared, my father’s straight razor on the tiles of our bathroom floor.” No one ever learned the reason for the suicide, except for Leo, and the reader, when it is revealed at the end of the novel. After Steve’s death, Leo spent years in and out of psychiatric institutions in a horrifically painful period he calls “The Great Drift.”

Fortunately, he was well enough to enter high school as a freshman, but was arrested for drug possession at his very first party. When the cops appeared on the scene as a result of complaints from neighbors about the noise, an older student slipped cocaine in Leo’s pocket. Leo refused to give-up the culprit’s name, so he took the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. He spent time in prison, has been on parole seemingly forever, and is still performing hundreds of hours of community service when the book opens on June 16, 1969.

It is on June 16, 1969, just before Leo’s junior year, that his life changes dramatically. A teaching Sister at Leo’s Catholic high school, where his Mom is the principal, asks him to visit two new kids, orphans, to help them adjust to their new surroundings. According to her, these two, brother and sister, are both thieves, liars, criminals and runaways. “In the world of orphanages they are called ‘long riders,’ because they’ve run away from every institution where they have been placed – from New Orleans to Richmond to Orlando. Long riders are kids looking for something they’re never going to find because it doesn’t exist in the first place.”  The Sister and Leo’s mother are in agreement that since Leo has spent time in prison and institutions himself, he might be good for them. So Leo Bloom King meets Starla and Niles Whitehead. They are handcuffed to chairs, (the orphanage’s method for managing runaways). Leo quickly remedies the situation and the locks are opened. The siblings form a friendship with our hero because he is the only one who has ever been nice to them. The friendship is to last a lifetime.

Starla and Niles are originally from the North Carolina mountain country, way up in the hills, and as Leo has been informed, “there’s no trash like white trash!” Like Leo they have been psychologically wounded, although they put up a tough front. Both teens are very bright, but Niles has purposefully flunked school on a few occasions to be with his younger sister.

Around the time Starla, Niles and Leo meet, Dr. Bloom asks her son to bake and deliver a batch of cookies to their new next door neighbors, the Poe family. The family includes an alcoholic mother, and precocious, talented, charismatic twins – Sheba Poe, who even as a teen became the “most beautiful woman in Charleston the moment she crossed the county line,” and her brother Trevor. Sheba opens the front door to Leo, who bears a plate of benne wafers, a Charleston speciality. Immediately behind her is her brother, who appears to be wearing ballet slippers – his, not hers. Elfin in size, Leo thinks Trevor might be even more beautiful than his sister. They are both extremely talented – Sheba is a budding actress and chanteuse, while Trevor is a superb piano player – classic, jazz, blues…you name it. Missing from the family portrait is the father…a veritable demon from hell. So Leo makes two more buddies, and since, strangely enough, the Poes get along with the Whiteheads – their emotional pain, intelligence and wit binding them – they form a group of five fast friends.

Dr. Bloom has expressly forbidden Leo to become involved with the Whiteheads and the Poes, all terrible influences. Her wishes are ignored and Leo is quietly backed by his father in this decision.

Dr. Bloom is also inadvertently responsible for further broadening her son’s “unsavory” social life. She asks him to meet the new football coach, Anthony Jefferson, a former star halfback at South Carolina State… and a black man. Since 1969 was not a halcyon year for civil rights, especially in South Carolina, six excellent former players, all white, have pulled out of the team. They refuse to be coached by a “Negro.” But that’s another story. It is through Coach Jefferson that Leo meets his son Ike, and eventually Ike’s girlfriend Betty. These two seem to get along really well with the group of five – maybe it’s because they are black and somewhat ostracized, as are the others for different reasons…or maybe it’s just because they are also compassionate fun kids. Of course, Leo’s Mom doesn’t want her son hanging out with blacks either. But in this new community of friendship – two Applalachian orphans, a pair of exotic twins, and the son of the school’s black football coach – Leo begins to blossom, heal and grow emotionally. Much of the novel comprises episodes that illustrate how people of such diverse backgrounds could become lifelong friends.

Also in the mix are South of Broad Street’s very own snobs and racists typified by Chadworth Rutledge the tenth, (an insupportable kind of guy), his sister Fraser Rutledge, somewhat more human than her brother and a star basketball player to boot, and Molly Huger, Fraser’s best friend and Chad’s girlfriend.

Conroy masterfully develops his characters and their growing relationships with each other. Although there is humor, mostly dark, throughout  South of Broad,  personal tragedy is the common factor here, as well as the redeeming quality of long lasting, loving friendships which forgives all.

It would be impossible for me to summarize all that goes on between this book’s pages – there are knockout descriptions of various football games in an unexpected winning high school season which kept me riveted to the page – and I don’t like football! Each character has his/her own coming of age story. Their friendships continue through marriage, childbirth, careers, etc., though some have moved a continent away. And finally, in 1989, an unexpected emergency brings the group together once more, their love for one another stronger than ever.

One more thing…remember that Charleston, SC is also a character here. Conroy demonstrates his love for this town as well as examples of his beautiful descriptive writing with the following: “Love it or hate it, this is city enchanting enough to charm cobras out of baskets, one so corniced and filigreed and elaborate that it leaves strangers awed and natives self-satisfied. In its shadows you can find metalwork as delicate as lace and spiral staircases as elaborate as yachts.” And, “In the secrecy of its gardens you can discover jasmine and camellias and hundreds of other plants that look embroidered and stolen from the Garden of Eden for the sheer love of richness and the joy of stealing from the gods.” Gorgeous prose.

On the down side, there is almost too much sadness and psychological truma here. This is NOT an “up” read. There are certain parts of the novel that remind me of the film “The Big Chill,” but at least that movie had fantastic music to lighten things up and get the beat going. So, if you have a tendency towards depression, this is not a book for you to even consider reading. However, I do recommend South of Broad as a must read, especially for those not on anti-depressants. I just hope we don’t have to wait another fourteen years for the author’s next novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 459 readers
PUBLISHER: Nan A. Talese (August 11, 2009)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AMAZON PAGE: South of Broad
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More books set in South Carolina:

Queen of the Broken Hearts by Cassandra King

Captivity by Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Work Shirts for Madmen by George Singleton

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Peninsula of Lies by Edward Bell



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October 21, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Family Matters, Reading Guide, US South

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