South of Broad by Pat Conroy
I've liked Pat Conroy for a long time; I remember my mom reading The Great Santini at the beach one summer when I was little and laughing with her as she read aloud the part about the guys "throwing up" mushroom soup. I've read some, but not all of his books and I did enjoy The Prince of Tides. I guess that's really the problem with South of Broad, I feel like I've already read it. Lonely child, check. Strange menagerie of friends and/or relatives, check. Menacing, evil man, check. Old-fashioned southern city with interesting neighborhoods and locals, check.
The story begins with the suicide of Leo's older, much more attractive, salt-of-the-earth, altar-boy brother. It's not clear at first how very young Leo's brother was when he committed suicide (he was only 10) and there is no information given as to why such a young, easy-going kid would be driven to make such a dramatic choice. Don't worry, you do conveniently find out at the very end and it was overwhelmingly bad, though I intuitively guessed pretty early on.
Due to the stress of his perfect brother's death, Leo goes mental, ends up institutionalized (at what, like 11?), then makes other bad choices and gets arrested for carrying drugs (for another kid he won't tattle on) at a party when he's 16-ish. After doing probation and community service for his crime, Leo decides his senior year will be different, and so begins the tale. Leo meets a new group of friends that summer and their stories are interwoven into Leo's life, from high school until the late '80s, climaxing with the devastation of Charleston by Hurricane Hugo. All of these new friendships seem forced, as if Conroy felt he couldn't tell the story without a fully diverse cohort. He brings us the poor, orphans, blacks, twins, a homosexual, a future actress, the physically handicapped, and super-rich Charleston society kids to round it all out.
I was born, and have lived in the South quite a bit. I've never felt the need to point out my friends' diversity or differences every single time I see them. "Well hey there black dude, and how's my friend the redneck orphan from Appalachia? Maybe my rich lawyer friend over there could buy you some new shoes, or an operation to fix your crossed eye." It just makes Conroy seem old, as if he imagines that now that people are all cool with having friends of all creeds and colors, they have to joke about it... every freakin' time they meet. The entire book is full of overly melodramatic emotions, wildly implausible coincidences, irrational decisions and I won't even mention how they all get together to rescue the gay man with AIDS, living in San Francisco, being held hostage by a crazed, drug-dealing, welfare-cheating black man, all to help his insanely beautiful, heinously egotistical movie star twin sister. GAH!
I finished it, but it was hard. Leo is so obviously a thinly-disguised Conroy and I guess he wants everyone to know he's got lots of really good friends that he jokes around with. I just hope he's not messing around with his friend's wife. The language is florid and bloated. I know Charleston is beautiful... stop crying and get on with it. The worst part of the whole book though was the description of middle-aged movie star Sheba Poe as she enters the house of uber-WASP Chad Rutledge (the tenth!), sashaying in and saying lines from her most famous movie, which is also conveniently playing in the background. Let that image sink in and then, let's run that scenario by Julia Roberts; I bet she does that all the time when she goes back to Georgia.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Mrs. Smith's reviews, check out her blog, Mrs. Smith Reads.