Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Book 29: South of Broad

I think Pat Conroy is a  gifted storyteller. The Great Santini is, I think, my favorite of his books.  When I first started South of Broad I was listening to it as an mp3 download.  The audiobook was great, the narrator did an excellent job with it, but Pat Conroy is almost a lyricist, and I wanted to read and savor the words, so I bought the book and read all but the first fifty pages.

The story starts on 16 June 1969 in Charleston, South Carolina and tells the story of Leopold Bloom King and his family and friends through the next twenty odd years.  Readers of James Joyce will recognize both the name Leopold Bloom and the significance of the 16 June date.

Upon hearing that I was reading South of Broad, one friend commented that her grandmother had read the book and said it was not as dark as some of his others but that she knew no one in Charleston, let alone a teenaged male, who talked like Leo King.  I think that is a very accurate statement.  In fact, it was the one thing that grated on me throughout the story, the only part that didn't feel authentic.

I loved the story. Conroy talks of the languid south, it's outward charm and interior rigid rules in beautiful prose.  He paints wonderful pictures of his characters and settings, and he uses a handful of words that I must seek out in a dictionary to have their full context.  

That being said, one thing that Conroy does extremely well is show both the beauty and the bowels of life.  His characters always have layers of complexity to them.  And some of them have horrific dark stories to tell- often occurring in childhood and instilling in them demons they fight or run from for the rest of their lives.  Yet Conroy does it all with a degree of dignity, evoking sympathy from the reader for the characters.

AIDS in the homosexual community in the 1980's becomes a central part of the story, the catalyst bringing together in a new way a group of friends who have been close for twenty years.  It reminded me of the early news I remember hearing of the AIDS epidemic.  I was young at the time.  No one really knew what it was. There was a lot of speculation around exactly how it was transmitted.  I remember people thinking it was a scourge to homosexuals, and I remember more than one person saying that the gays deserved this punishment for their lifestyle.  People began rethinking that when they realized AIDS doesn't discriminate on gender or lifestyle. 

I was too young in the mid to late 1980's to appreciate the horridness of this disease, the lives it destroyed and the way in which the disease ravages its victims.  Conroy portrayed this sensitively, authentically, and with compassion.  

This tribe of friends, a motley crew  if one ever existed, met in high school under an array of extenuating circumstances. Yet their friendship survived all kinds of things.  I miss that.  I have some friends I have known for a number of years with whom I am still very close.  But not a tribe, where we all know each other and are a part of each others' lives. For me, these friends are quite compartmentalized. This friendship, in its deep, combustible way will last throughout the lives of its characters.

All in all, South of Broad was an engrossing read, a good story. Darkness and light, laughter and tragedy, much like life itself.  Fans of Conroy will certainly enjoy.

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