The quality of the writing is uneven; some of it is simply bad, though there are patches of good writing sprinkled throughout. It’s undisciplined, shapeless and and sprawling. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that the novel tries to do way too much: a love letter to Charleston that is admittedly evocative at times, the two-dimensional story of a group of high school friends and how their lives intertwine in later years — with no convincing insight into why the characters behave as they do, and a beyond-ridiculous, B-movie horror story of a killer out to terrorize and slaughter.
It’s too bad because there is great ability obviously still there in the good parts.
Leopold Bloom King (Leo) is our narrator. As a high school senior, he has already spent time in a mental hospital after the suicide of his brother and is on probation for a drug offence that he didn’t commit. His mother is a former nun and Joyce scholar and the least believable character in the book, which is saying something.
In the summer of 1969, Leo meets several high school students who have an influence on his future life. He ends up unhappily married to one of them, although he is apparently in love with someone else. There is no text to explain why he marries as he does and none to give any clue as to who is the love of his life so the revelation, when it comes late in the book, is only words on a page — not a confirmation of previous hints or any sense of inevitability or any reader satisfaction of any sort, actually.
The climax of the book combines a character nearly dead from AIDS being confined against his will by an evil person who steals his money, a devastating hurricane, and the return of the crazed killer. No, really.
I’d never read Conroy and was only vaguely aware that he writes about the South and that he wrote The Prince of Tides. The back cover offers the adjectives “astonishing,” “stunning,” “incandescent,” “poetic,” but a second look clarifies that these words were written about an earlier work: a publishing practice both defensible and sneaky that relies on the casual bookstore browser looking for something that can be summed up in a few over-the-top words. But I imagine that reviews of South of Broad itself will yield lots of adjectives for future printings. There’s always an audience for this kind of thing.
My guess was that Conroy must be a writer past his prime, perhaps living up to ideas of sweeping sagas, the Gothic South, and larger-than-life dramatic characters that he handled more deftly earlier in his career. Reviewers that I trust confirmed my suspicions. In his New York Times Book Review August 2009 piece, Roy Hoffman is gentle in his treatment: “But the mysteries of character — the revelation of how these teenagers are transformed into remarkable adults — remain just beyond Leo’s grasp. The decades his old companions are offstage, from approximately ages 18 to 38, are pivotal. Although they share their histories through pages of colorful dialogue, the “reeflike accretions that build up friendships” are often obscured. By the time the novel is transformed into a thriller — “The city of palms . . . turns into a place of galvanic nightmare” — their concerns have come to feel tangential.”
Scott Martelle in the LA Times offers a nuanced review, contrasting Conroy’s earlier work with this one: “But with “South of Broad,” Conroy’s muscle has gone lax. You don’t get caught up in his narrative so much as you commit to it. Tragic twists just appear, lacking the kind of buildup that makes them work. The net effect is the surprises, even when not telegraphed, don’t surprise. They just click over like another mile on the odometer.”
Conroy’s writing is shown to advantage in landscape description, at its best when he pulls back on the superlatives:
The smell of smoke from the chimney of our house was stronger than either the rivers or the marshes and made the airwaves above the neighborhood as dark-scented and fragrant as a night garden.
In the summertime, the salt water that floods the creeks and bays and coves of South Carolina is warm and sun-shot and silken to the touch … Now the tide was hurtling back, drawing the essence of its marshes, the blue crabs lying in wait for stragglers who would soon be prey. As the tide receded, the oysters would be locked tight, retaining a shot-glass-full of seawater that would hold them until the next full tide; the flounders hidden in the mudflats; the mullets flashing in quicksilver sea grass; the small sharks nosing around for carrion; the blue herons straight-legged and heraldic in their motionless hunt; the snowy egrets – the only creatures in the Low Country whose name invoked winter – staring at the shallows for a quick run of minnows.
These passages appear in the same book as:
I remove the perfect stalk of celery from Herb’s Bloody Mary and bite off the leafy top of it. With that signal, a woman dressed demurely in a black leather jacket and silk slacks removes her sunglasses. She rises from a table near the end of the bar, and unties her Armani scarf. She unzips her jacket and reveals a scant, silvery blouse, as flimsy as a sandwich bag. With a shake of her head, a cascade of golden curls falls around her shoulders. Her stride across the room, however, is purposeful, without the unstudied voluptuousness she brought to every role she played. The entire restaurant is mesmerized by this transformation of a women who has been sitting in anonymity.
Be grateful that I spare you the dialogue.