I never really had ‘80’s hair. My hair has been a lot of different lengths over the past 36 years, and once or twice I’ve thought it was a good idea to cut bangs, but overall my hair has always been governed by the same basic principle: it grows out of my head and it hangs there. I wash it and brush it, and unless the humidity is more than about 80%, the law of gravity does a good job of making it point earthward. To be honest, I wouldn’t know how to go about having ‘80’s hair if I wanted it; I know that one can buy products at the store that makes one’s hair stand up straight and get all frizzy, but I don’t go into those aisles. Buying those products and spending time learning how to use them never seemed like a good idea to me – for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that this kind of project would painfully cut into my reading time.
The best part of never having had ‘80’s hair is the fact that there are absolutely NO incriminating photos of me with ‘80’s hair – and that’s a good thing. I’m happy about that. But instead of old school photos of me with that precarious look on my face that suggests I’m worried that my pile of hair might collapse at any minute, I have a different source of embarrassment calling to me from my youth: I have Pat Conroy, and, specifically, I have Beach Music.
When this novel was released – during Christmas break of my freshman year of college (1994-5), I think – I LOVED it. I was already a Pat Conroy fan, of course, and I hadn’t figured out yet that his style had taken a turn for the painfully melodramatic and sentimental in the years between The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides. I do remember giggling at Beach Music a little bit – mainly about the scene in which four of the major characters are lost at sea for fifteen days without any provisions and are dragged around by a manta ray, stalked by a shark, and rescued by a deer. I knew how silly that was, but I didn’t let it stand in the way of loving this novel.
And now I don’t mind telling you that I am very, very embarrassed about this.
Here’s a synopsis: Jack McCall lives in Rome with his nauseatingly precocious eight year-old daughter, Leah, and earns a living as a restaurant reviewer and author of cookbooks. He has been estranged from his family and friends in South Carolina for six years when a series of people from his past begin to seek him out: first, his dead wife’s sister hires a private detective to find him and urge him to let her family have a relationship with Leah, then his childhood friends Mike and Ledare visit him in Rome and try to persuade him to collaborate with them on a TV miniseries about their childhood, then a different private detective starts poking around in search of Jack’s friend Jordan, who is supposed to be dead, and THEN Jack receives a telegram from his brother asking him to come home because their mother is dying.
Throughout all of this, Jack does a lot of melodramatic grumbling about how awful everyone he has ever met is and how no one has any right to expect him to leave his safe refuge in Rome to return to South Carolina. But, finally, return he does.
At first, he returns to South Carolina alone, leaving Leah in Rome with her nanny, Maria, whose character is lifted straight out of a TV commercial for pasta sauce. He reunites with his tense, angry, hilarious family and begins a vigil by the bedside of his mother – or, at least, he maintains this vigil when he is not busy tracking down his drunken father or getting naked and jumping off a bridge at the behest of his youngest brother John Hardin, who is holding a drawbridge hostage with a shotgun.
Now – let me interrupt this synopsis for a bit of quick commentary. This section of the novel is entertaining, and even at 36 I am not blind to its charms. Pat Conroy writes banter better than just about any other writer I know – his characters are all quick-witted, honest, and nasty in that charming way that fictional characters can be when they are not actually threatening the lives, safety, or egos of real people. If they were YOUR relatives, you would want all of them to go into hiding in Rome, trust me – but Pat Conroy really has a knack for making me wish these awful people were my relatives. It’s a gift, really. But the problem is that all of his characters banter in exactly the same way. Trappist priests, illiterate mountain men, eight year-old girls, Nazis, Hollywood producers, Italian waiters, Marine generals – you name it. If it’s a subset of humanity, it probably makes an appearance in the encyclopedic world of this novel and I guarantee you that it banters exactly like every other character that Pat Conroy has ever written. Voice is not his strong suit – he only has one in his repertoire. Now, if that one Pat Conroy voice were a real person, I would marry it – right now, today, no question. I am endlessly seducible by the smart, wounded, cynical, scared voice that pours from the mouths of every character in this novel. But I see this as a vulnerability of mine, not as a strength of the novel.
But back to the summary: Jack’s mother, Lucy, recovers from her episode of leukemia and visits Jack and Leah in Rome, where they meet the pope (yes, really) and Gore Vidal (again – yes, really) and also meet up with Jordan, who – as various private detectives suspect – is not really dead but is an undercover priest who pops up in a variety of different churches and wearing the habits of a variety of different orders because he is running from the law. But then Jack is shot by terrorists in the airport when he and Lucy and Leah are getting ready to return to South Carolina, and Jordan comes to the hospital to give him last rites before his surgery, and a TV camera films him, broadcasting the image worldwide (this novel constantly suffers from the misconception that there will be worldwide interest in every single thing that Jack McCall and his friends and family do) and alerting a variety of interested parties, including Jordan’s evil father, of the fact that Jordan is alive.
So some months pass while Jack recovers from his terrorist attack. He and Jordan orchestrate a counter-sting operation designed to foil Jordan’s evil father’s sting operation to bring Jordan into police custody. Ledare visits him again and they do various flirtatious things and Jack starts making noise about finding a new mother for Leah. Then Jack is healthy enough to travel, and he and Leah go back to South Carolina to introduce her for the first time to all of his nasty, charming friends and family and also to a five year-old child with Down Syndrome who turns out to be a porpoise whisperer.
It’s worth mentioning here that the plot I’m outlining here takes up only a small fraction of the 800 pages that make up this novel, because as a whole this novel is highly flashback-driven. While all of the above is taking place, we are also treated to long chapters about how and why Jack’s wife Shyla committed suicide, how Jack and his friends met Jordan, what Lucy’s childhood was like, and how and when the ancestors of all of the major characters immigrated to America. And then there are the painfully overdone Holocaust chapters (in which one major plot episode is cribbed from the “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” episode of M*A*S*H, but who’s keeping track, really?) which indicate that no one ever taught Pat Conroy the law of inverse relationships between pathos of subject matter and pathos of prose that is so important in fiction writing. Because he’s got pathos pretty much everywhere, slathered all over everything like the mayonnaise he loves so much.
Anyway, long story short: there are a lot more flashbacks and a lot more banter, and then Lucy rescues a bunch of turtle eggs, which is illegal and draws the wrath of some Park Rangers – but it’s a good thing she does rescue those turtles, because how else would this novel make clear its extremely clunky symbolism about imprinting and the tide-like pull that people feel to come home? And the Lost at Sea scene happens, and then more flashbacks, and then there is an elaborate mock trial scene in which Jack’s drunken father wears his actual judicial robes and brings his actual gavel to a rented theatre in Charleston so all the major characters can gather and make speeches like this: “Vatican II… that’s when the Church went wrong. That fat Pope who couldn’t do a chin-up if his life depended on it got every liberal-thinking dildo and dandy he could dig up, got them together at Vatican II to dismantle everything that was true and unreplaceable in the Catholic church… I loathe this new, limp-wristed, feel-good, touchy-feely Church where the priests and nuns screw like mink and play guitar at High Mass singing ‘Kumbaya’” (672-3).
And then John Hardin kidnaps his dying mother and takes her on a canoe trip and threatens to shoot his brothers again. And Lucy dies, but not before Strom Thurmond comes to her final party and she finds time to say a lot of meaningful things about the meaning of life and about how we have to forgive everyone for being their imperfect selves.
I know, I know – I’ve turned on the sarcasm again, and while there’s no question that this novel deserves a little sarcasm, I really don’t intend to mock Pat Conroy TOO much. I think of him and his novels as old friends, and while I reserve the right to mock old friends sometimes, I do so with affection and good humor. There is no question that at its core this novel is about human goodness and resilience and about the power of friends and family to sustain us, and the warmth of this novel is absolutely part of the reason that it appealed to me so much when I was nineteen. I liked big, sweeping, epic-like novels back then, and I still do, but only if their authors can pull off that epic-like quality successfully – which Pat Conroy doesn’t do here. I’ll always feel affectionate toward Beach Music – but readers, PLEASE, if I ever start talking about wanting to read it again, PLEASE stop me.
I can’t end this review without commenting on the excesses of Conroy’s language. He always loves expansive sentences filled with complicated similes and metaphors, and I don’t mind that. But JUST LOOK at some of these sentences:
On the city of Charleston: “a stain-windowed greenhouse of ferny richness and a wall-eyed, leering perversion” (451)
On Judaism: “no text could illuminate the theological rain forest where the tenets of that complex and hairsplitting faith luxuriated and multiplied like papayas” (396).
On Jack’s wife Shyla’s spiritual life: “Her spirituality bore fruit in darkness and a grotesque moth with skull marks on its powdery wings tried to take flight in the museum where she kept her soul chloroformed and pinned to velvet” (493).
I also have to say that Pat Conroy has absolutely no idea how to write the voices of children. Jack’s eight year-old daughter is a sort of mini-Dalai Lama who roams the world offering her father spiritual counsel and marital advice in two languages. This is a novel in which twelve year-old boys say things like THIS to girls that they have just met: “I’m an only child, Shyla, and I do my mother’s hair whenever my father isn’t around. My God, your hair is marvelous” (507) and fifteen year-olds who are lost at sea say “[Our parents] don’t know where in the hell to look… They think we’re crabbing in one of the creeks, reading back issues of Playboy magazine. It’s gonna be a leap for them to know we’re being towed out to sea by a two-ton manta ray” (552).
OK, enough, right? I’ve made my point. This novel is full of love and energy and pain and goodness, but there is not a single measure taken anywhere in its 800 pages to reign in its excesses of pathos or of language. This novel is the best measure I have yet been able to find of how immature I was as a reader at nineteen. The AP Challenge has made me aware of how humbling it can be to reread the books that mystified and frustrated me when I was a teenager – but let me tell you something else. Rereading the novels that I LOVED at that age?