Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review - SOUTH OF BROAD by Pat Conroy

A lifetime of avid reading has brought many surprises my way ranging from mildly pleasant to absolutely thrilling. On occasion the pendulum swings in the other direction and I find myself disappointed by a book that did not live up to the lofty expectations I held for it. Great reviews, prestigious literary awards, and electrifying word of mouth are among the things that cause me to open a book with anticipation that my proverbial socks are about to be knocked off. But more than any of these factors, I tend to expect the best of books by authors who have wowed me with their prior efforts. I’m well aware that past success does not guarantee similar accomplisment in the future. Perhaps more so than any other endeavor, duplicating greatness time and time again is most difficult with the writing of fiction. When you see Kobe Bryant score 60 points in a game you expect that he’ll play spectacularly the next time out. Nine times out of ten he’ll do just that. He may not score 60, perhaps will only reach half that total. Thirty points is not nearly as impressive as sixty, but it’s still a damn fine effort. Great athletes tend to be consistent with the flaunting of their talent, and the same can be said of many other vocations. But when you look over the career arc of a prolific novelist, you’ll sometimes find that your favorite and least favorite books by them are oceans apart. You may find yourself wondering if the same person could have possibly written both books, particularly when they are published in the same decade. The weight of expectations from a highly successful novel can cripple an author, preventing future efforts that they fear (and rightfully so) will not live up to the reputation of its predecessor. Harper Lee is the ultimate example of this, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her first (and last) novel – To Kill a Mockingbird. We also have Margaret Mitchell who wrote the blockbuster Gone with the Wind and followed it up with…zilch, nada, nothing. Neither of them weakened their legacies with substantially weaker follow-ups to their signature works, but I’m sure they left many bummed readers hungry for more.

Up until recently the sharpest drop off I’ve experienced in enjoyment of novels by the same author would be the peak of John Irving’s The World According to Garp to the valley of his A Son of the Circus. Garp is not a very easy book to live up to, but Mr. Irving has managed to come pretty close over the course of his stellar career with brilliant works such as The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany. So he is easily forgiven by me for efforts that I find less impressive, especially since his worst is still better than many writers’ best.

Pat Conroy is an author who has dazzled me with the gift of his prose in the past. The Prince of Tides was a revelation. Like his other books The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline, it was made into pretty good movie. So I dove into his latest novel, South of Broad, prepared to be floored. But this was not to be. Although the lushness of his prose when describing his beloved South Carolina continues to be on full display (various other setting elements are carried over from his previous writings as well), I did not find myself to be nearly as invested in the characters who populate South of Broad as I was in those brought to life in The Prince of Tides. Rather than feeling I was getting to know new people intimately, which is what the best of fiction does, it seemed to me that Mr. Conroy merely presented a lineup of caricatures this time out. Each of them was a specific type who spoke and acted according to predetermined dictates. The book is full of melodramatic events, and this sentence may be the greatest understatement I’ve ever made. Pretty much every tragedy other than the holocaust happens to these characters. Incestuous rape, abandoned orphans, stalking by pscho killer, flaunting of extramarital affairs in faces of spouses, suicide, AIDS, caught in a hurricane, victim of pedophile priest - you name it, this book has it. And I’d be happy to consider all of this to be a plausible series of events among a small group of friends so long as I did not feel the majority of them were cardboard cut outs rather than real people. Pat Conroy appears to be going through the motions when it comes to developing them, far more interested in putting them through the roller coaster pace of his plot while paying homage to the beauty of Charleston every few pages. There is a gay male character who perhaps literally is not given a single line of dialogue that is not sexual in nature. We get it, Pat, he’s gay. Gay people talk about more than just the fact that they’re gay, you know. The movie star is a self involved diva from beginning to end, always performing for her friends and for Conroy's readers rather than simply being a human being from time to time. The snob is a snob in all he says and does. How he doesn’t manage to permanently alienate himself from a group of people he considers himself to be far superior to is beyond me. Why he continues hanging out with people he barely finds worthy to wash his car is beyond me. Pat Conroy wrote that they will remain in each others lives for the sake of the storyline, so they do. The African American characters are noble and overachieving from beginning to end, no flaws other than an inability to tell the snob to go screw himself when he says something racist. One of the orphans becomes an upstanding citizen, the other goes crazy for no particular reason to be gleaned other than that at least 50% of those with screwed up childhoods surely will go on to become screwed up adults. The protagonist is the one character we get to know a little, although he is remarkably unemotional and reacts to pretty much everything with a flip comment. His specialty is always having a joke at the ready, delivered with a straight face. His father is a saint, his mother a bitch except for when she’s being a nun, and Toad somehow ends up as a gossip columnist who every now and then reacts to tragedy by being admitted to a mental institution when he can’t come up with a punchline. We see these characters at two points, when Toad and his friends are in high school, then years later when they go on a rescue mission to San Francisco for a couple weeks and then return to the greatest place on earth - South Carolina [Sure the south has its bigotry and rigid class distinctions separating bluebloods from the riffraff, but it’s also really really pretty]. In between these two points they have married off in pairs, sort of like the TV show Friends. Poor Toad gets the crazy one because it's his lot in life to catch bad breaks. He also lusts after the one who marries the snob because it's her destiny to be Mrs. Snob.

In Conroy’s latest effort I found far too much reader manipulation for my taste, a soap opera rather than Masterpiece Theater. Am I being harsher on this book than it deserves? I’m not sure. Perhaps if I did not come in as such a big fan of The Prince of Tides I would have given it more leeway. But regardless of how I feel about an author’s previous work in instances when I’ve read it, I can still recognize heavy handedness when I see it. I’m able to notice when an author is taking short cuts to draw emotion rather than carefully building tension, can spot border line absurd dialogue in place of what feels more natural for people to say, am capable of detecting paper thin character development when it’s evident. All of this was discovered in South of Broad. Pat Conroy’s sheer talent at constructing sentences got me to keep on pushing through to the end, and the novel's final 50 pages or so are probably the strongest. I think this is because Conroy was just about done with his plot machinations (just a twist or two or three left), so most of the characters are dispensed with, sent to the backdrop of Toad’s life, allowing the reader to spend a little one on one time with him. When he doesn’t have anyone around to make inappropriate wisecracks to, we get an extended peek at Toad’s inner thoughts and he finally starts to become interesting just in time for the book to end. Pat Conroy is an enormous talent, but South of Broad is one of his off days in my humble opinion.

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