Nan A. Talese, 2009
**out in paperback May 4, 2010**
I love Pat Conroy’s novels. The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and Beach Music are among my favorite novels. But I also think Conroy is a bit of an uneven writer. Or maybe people are uneven and he captures that well. I can’t decide. While reading his novels I’m struck by the beauty of some sentences and scenes, and then on the next page I’m repelled by plastic sweetness. The main character and narrator of South of Broad, Toad, annoyed me to the point of revulsion, yet I kept reading because of the beauty and empathy that is woven throughout Conroy’s prose.
This post contains spoilers.
In some ways South of Broad seemed too much like Beach Music. It’s about another group of old friends who occasionally fracture and their messed up families, but in the end everyone hangs tight. This tight knit group of friends is always there for each other physically (to eat, drink, shag, or get medical attention), but emotionally they’re stunted.
Toad, the narrator, is THE most annoying character that I’ve come across in a long time. I wonder if it was Conroy’s intention to paint him as a codependent, self-centered, hypocrite or if I’m being too harsh. The scene that shifted how I feel about Toad is when, not too long after Sheba is murdered, Trevor (her brother) says something about his sister and Toad says he’s not ready to talk about her and won’t be for some time. This is the brother of the women who was murdered, the twin brother, and maybe he needs to talk now. Toad, if he weren’t such a self centered fellow, would put aside his feelings and let his friend talk, right? Or at least offer a more compassionate response that wasn’t focused on himself?
Toad is also a codependent, selfish doormat. I wanted to yell at him to get a life. He’s a great example of how black and white rules can create people who live stunted lives. Or maybe he’s an example of religious hypocrisy. In San Francisco he says to his god that he won’t condemn gays even if that’s what god’s scriptures say. On the other hand he stays married to a woman who has abandoned him. When she show up, presumably on psychiatric medication, Toad gives her alcohol. Its like he’s helping her stay in her personal hell by giving her what she wants as long as he doesn’t have to leave his comfort zone. He’ll suffer for her and be treated like a doormat by her, but he won’t give her the divorce she wants because–in this area–he’s obeying his religion. Maybe if he’d divorced her she would have been able to make healthier choices for herself and maybe he would have had to leave his comfort zone and grow.
The excessively sugary-sweet nostalgic mode that Toad lives in made me nauseous toward the end. And maybe because the narrator did so much telling (about how special everyone is and how much he does for everyone and how self sacrificing he is) rather than the author showing these qualities and behaviors, the novel gets bogged down in nostalgia and sentimental loftiness that just grates on my nerves. “Okay already,” I started thinking about the characters, “you’re all special and unique and Charleston is the center of the universe, but do something already, people!” To be fair, they do act when action is most needed.
At times the characters seemed like chess pieces being moved around a board. I liked all of the characters some of the time, but they all had so many quirks and inconsistencies that I couldn’t tell if Conroy intended them to come off like they had borderline personality disorders or if they were poorly written. Would Ike, the police chief, really take Toad to see Sheba butchered up? And would the police chief and newspaper columnist really hang out in public to cry in each others arms afterwards? And is it believable that a stoic guy like Niles drops to the ground and howls when he’s told his sister is dead and stays there until other teachers and students come out and start stroking him and Toad actually leaves the scene? Okay, yeah, Niles is from the mountains and his momma howled in that old way at her husband’s funeral, but Niles has been married to the southern ice-belle Molly for years and living in an upper crust world, so would he really behave like that? And are we to believe that when the Toad goes into a psych ward because he’s suicidal that Chad comes to visit him every day? Chad is never around and even leaves when hurricane Hugo comes to town and then when everyone else gets to the mountains he leaves for Charleston/Chicago on business.
The book seems crazy when you add up all of these things. Maybe it is similar to one of the stereotypes of the South: on the outside it looks beautiful but scratch the surface and the ugly, putridness of racism, classism, and incest is right there. Maybe the book reflects Toad’s craziness. Maybe he is The South. You want to like him, he has potential, but he’s just so messed up. [Note: These Southern stereotypes are not my opinion, but are themes Conroy has explored.]
It probably sounds like I didn’t like this novel, but I did like it . . . it’s a sweeping novel of friendships and relationships. Even if the characters got under my skin, I stuck it out with them just like they stuck it out with each other. One thing’s for sure: I felt like I’d been put through the ringer after I turned the last page.