"I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged-shell of a soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I see the ranks of palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of Colonial Lake or hear the bells of St. Michael's calling cadence to the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street."
Sometimes the city in which a book is located is just as much a character in the book as the people who populate it. Such is the case with "Miss Garnet's Angel" by Salley Vickers, in which Venice takes center stage. And then there is "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Berendt, in which Savannah, GA, is the shining star.
And so it is with Charleston, SC. Years ago our family flew to Florida and after a short stay rented a car to drive to Washington, DC. I was "allowed" to pick a famous Southern city to visit along the way - but just one. I wavered between Savannah or Charleston. Going to Savannah meant driving a ways inland, so Dan was rooting for Charleston. I was leaning toward Savannah, but I was glad I acquiesced, for I had a magical time in Charleston. I fell in love with the city. Who doesn't?
In his latest book, "South of Broad", Pat Conroy returns to one of his favorite spots on earth, the Low Country of South Carolina. This time, he concentrates on the city of Charleston. As I read "South of Broad", I again encountered the city I had fallen head over heels for - St. Michael's Church, The Battery, the old Slave Market, the stately homes and nearby antebellum plantations, the antique shops, the enchanting hidden-away gardens, the seafood restaurants along Shem Creek.
"South of Broad" has its flaws, but it has two very redeeming qualities: the City of Charleston, a character unto itself, and the overwhelmingly beautiful language with its cadence of rivers and sea.
The book begins with the fateful day of June 19, 1969, during which the protagonist, Leopold Bloom King, encounters the people who will figure importantly in his future. That he meets them all in one day - deeply-wounded twins Sheba and Trevor Poe; orphaned brother and sister Niles and Starla Whitehead; privileged brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge; Chad's socialite girlfriend Molly Huger; and black football player Ike Jefferson - is a stretch in itself, and there are other passages in which credulity is stretched to the limit. As much as I wish they did, people in real life do not actually talk like Conroy's characters.
The main flaw of the book is that it skips from 1969 to 1989, leaving out a huge chunk of time during which the friendships formed among the teenagers. Though Conroy does fill in some blanks later, the back stories are sketchy, to say the least. The biggest stretch of unexplored and unexplained territory is how and why Starla, who later becomes Leo's wife, descends into madness when her equally-troubled brother and the even-more-troubled twins do not.
Another "character" in the book is Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the City of Charleston in 1989. I thought for sure that the hurricane would be the perfect time for the psychopathic stalker/murderer we had already encountered to make his reappearance. What better plot twist than to have a group of people trapped by a murderous hurricane be stalked by an equally violent killer?
Good thing I'm not a novelist. Conroy instead elects to have his villain reappear later in a much less dramatic way. Quite the letdown. In regard to the stalker, I had early on guessed his identity and later, his fate. These revelations were meant to be dramatic, but instead of providing us with "a-ha" moments Conroy gives us "ho-hum" moments.
As always, Conroy does do some things right. He is always good at writing about strong male friendships, such as that between Leo and Ike. Leo's character, fortunately, is fully drawn. He's a good man, a fine man - complicated but likable, wise but oh-so-human, nearly broken but resilient as the trees that survived the hurricane. I loved the portraits of Starla and Trevor, also survivors - of a hellish childhood - who turn to their imaginations and a love of beauty for salvation. But other characters are poorly developed. For example, though we learn that Niles, too, is a fine and good man, we are only told this, not shown it.
For me, Conroy's best book will always be "The Prince of Tides" (one of my favorite books of all time). So I will forgive him the flaws in "South of Broad". For despite its deficits, he has still given me a great deal - the story of a Dolphin Queen, a stellar early-morning bike ride through a sleeping city, a mother who is a Joycean scholar and who was a nun, a town rife with the scents of jasmine and magnolia, the swell of the tides, friendships beyond measure.
"Since the day I have been born I have been afraid that heaven would never be half as beautiful as Charleston, the city formed where two rivers meet in ecstacy to place a harbor and a bay and an exit to the world."
It's apparent Conroy loves his city, and it was certainly a pleasure for me to to re-visit it during a time in which my personal landscape is white and bitterly cold.