South of Broad
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009
Like our pantries, the bestseller list has something to tell us about our addictions. And if Pat Conroy is at the forefront of the diagnosis – as he should be, since his new novel South of Broad is his sixth consecutive book to make the list – that only reinforces the conclusion that we’re hooked on talk.
Freud’s doing, I guess. It’s a striking thing about psychotherapy that so many of its treatments, from cocaine to Xanax, have evolved into full-fledged addictions in their own right. So it is with the talking cure: the 1980s witnessed the exfoliation of day-time television shows that offered the chance to see people burst into tears (or, in time, violent rampages) at carefully cued intervals after sharing the wretched details of a failed relationship or childhood trauma. But, almost psychically anticipating and then overlapping the rise of Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael, there was Pat Conroy, putting out book after book of thinly-veiled accounts of his abusive father (The Great Santini), his abusive university (The Lords of Discipline), his abusive father (The Prince of Tides), and his abusive father (the memoir My Losing Season), each publication itself the occasion of a mini Montel-worthy melodrama of family feuding and eventual public reconciliation.
South of Broad naturally picks up where the previous books left off. It follows the destiny of a star-crossed rag-tag gang of outcasts who meet in a Charleston high school in 1969 and remain devoted friends for the next twenty years, despite the rococo trials and tribulations Conroy has them undergo. These “treacheries of fate,” as the lovably woebegone narrator Leo King calls them, include adultery, AIDS, the (perplexingly sporadic) wrath of a serial killer, and, not to be outdone by current events, a devastating hurricane and a church sex abuse scandal.
But mostly South of Broad is devoted to the sublimely indulgent act of yakking. You can’t ask a character to pass the salt in this book without someone leaping up to tell you that he had no salt in the orphanage where he grew up, or that his father used to beat him with a belt and then pour salt in the cuts. Indeed, Conroy has never met a conversation that couldn’t be spruced up with a few revelations of child abuse. The blurted intimacies and anguished condemnations of the following excerpt more or less run on tape-loop across the 500 pages of the book – here, Charleston blueblood Fraser is simultaneously accusing her sister Molly of having an affair with Leo and lamenting the threats of a killer, the father of their friends Sheba and Trevor, who’s stalking the gang:
“You’d have to be blind not to see what [Molly] and Leo are up to. And I didn’t come out here to make orphans out of my kids.”
“What do you have against orphans?” Niles asks his wife. Now the room seems to be spinning out of control, a molecular planet freed from its own minimalist laws of gravity.
“Nothing at all, darling.” Fraser is gaining a measure of control over herself. “It’s just not the fate I choose for our children, no matter how character-building it might seem to you.”
“I’ve never thought of it like that,” Niles says. ‘It was the most terrifying thing in the world. I woke up scared every day. I went to school scared, and so did my sister. It ruined her whole life. Your loving me saved my life, Fraser. My sister got hurt so bad that even Leo’s love couldn’t come close to touching her heart. So Leo ruined his life by loving someone who couldn’t be fixed. But as scared as I was, and as scared as Starla [his sister] was, I don’t think that either of us were scared like Sheba and Trevor were. I didn’t have much of a daddy, and that was a bad thing. But they had one who wanted to terrify them and hunt them down through the years. I don’t know the whole story Sheba, not by a long shot. But I know it’s a bad story, real bad.”
It is to be sure a singularly bad story, and eventually, after a half-dozen more interruptions from members of the gang who wish to remind one another how lousy it was growing up poor, orphaned, black, or ugly, Sheba tells it in a performance savored by all. Only Fraser seems unwilling to get into the swing of things, and protests, “Sheba, there’s no use in dragging us through every sordid detail of your dad’s abuse of you and Trevor. We get it already.” But, as though to remind her just what novel she’s in, her husband Niles chimes in again:
“In an orphanage, anything can happen to a kid, Fraser. I was butt-fucked by two men before I was ten and survived it.”
Yet there’s a sort of gruesome sincerity behind all this insane coffee talk that confounds cynicism. I often had the sense that Conroy was choking back tears as he uncorked each heart-wrenching revelation. He deploys a kind of campy ingenuousness (he uses the word “scrumptious” so many times it started to make me blush) that gives readers the heady, whooshing sensation which follows a deeply personal confession.
Those impassioned and compulsive confessions are what grease the skids as you navigate the clumsy prose and rickety plotline. Conroy thanks his editor Nan A. Talese in his acknowledgments, but South of Broad merely adds urgency to the question of what it is this woman does, exactly, apart from pick up the tab. In one cute oversight, a chapter ends with the sentence “But all of us came roaring back to one another in the middle of our lives, by something as simple as a knock on the door”; the next chapter is titled “Knock on the Door”; and the first sentence of that chapter is, “There is a…” – well, I won’t give it away. But the loopiest aspect of the novel is the way that the serial killer – an “evil genius,” in Sheba’s words – disappears so thoroughly from the minds of everyone in the chapters in which he doesn’t physically show up wielding a knife; it’s the most absent-minded thriller I’ve ever read. And was there no one available to stop Conroy from naming his married couple Fraser and Niles?
Irrelevant, obviously. A man who can sound a genuine sobbing note while writing the line “Humanity is best described as inhumanity” is going to command an audience. That perceived sincerity was certainly the key to the success of Geraldo Rivera (who regularly invited white supremacists into his studio and appeared outraged and hurt when they said racist things) to that of Oprah Winfrey, the mighty Shiva of the audience-embracing talk-show pantheon. Even Jerry Springer delivered an earnest homily on civics and toleration after goading his guests into throwing chairs at each other for an hour.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s not something a little bit outré about South of Broad. Whither Ricki Lake, after all? Recently, Phil Donahue’s comeback show was crushed in the ratings by Bill O’Reilly. Pat Conroy’s reputation is such that he could have written The Unabridged History of Pocket Lint and it would have summited the bestseller list – the real test will be in this book’s staying power. If South of Broad quickly fades from memory, it may be a sign that the public no longer gets its fix of tearstained testimonials from child abuse victims – and instead, as the nonfiction bestseller list seems to suggest, looks to Glenn Beck for that sort of thing.
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for the Barnes and Noble Review, The Quarterly Conversational, and thefanzine.com, among other places. He lives in New York City.