Pages read: 131 out of 512
Last year’s PAT CONROY MONTH!!! was not a high point for me as a blogger. I set out to read War and Peace, which is one of the novels Pat Conroy discusses in his book My Reading Life, but I stopped reading it after only a few hundred pages, in spite of its many amusing moments involving policemen, bears, and a vomiting tsar. I made some noise about reading South of Broad last year, and even hunted down my copy and put it on the dining room table (which is my on-deck circle for books), but I never even cracked it. Actually, correction: I did crack it. I made it about two and a half pages, until I got to this sentence, about the protagonist’s father: “A stargazer of the first order, he squealed with pleasure on the moonless nights when the stars winked at him in some mysterious, soul-stirring graffiti of ballet-footed light” (3). I’m not much of a fan of mixed metaphors (except those I mix myself) or of the pathetic fallacy or of grown adults who squeal. I put the book aside, unwilling to contemplate 509 more pages of such sentences. Sometime around January I put it back on the shelf.
This year I slogged through the ballet-scented graffiti and the paeans to Charleston and an odd chapter-long rhapsody about paperboys. Not just paperboys, mind you, but also the many life lessons that are just waiting there in metaphorical form for paperboys to inhale along with the morning dew (“I realized that tragedy was hurled freely into everyone’s life as though it were a cheap newspaper advertising porno shops and strip shows thrown into an overgrown yard” ). I haven’t seen a writer elevate paperboys to this level of godliness since Beverly Cleary’s Henry and Ribsy.
But pointing out South of Broad’s flaws is not what I want to do today, because the reality is that I am really enjoying re-reading it. Memory tells me that ridiculousness awaits in the novel’s second half, but I am trying not to think about that right now. Once this book gets its linguistic silliness out of its system, the prose is mostly contained and controlled. Some of the characters are well-drawn (more in a moment about the ones who are not), and as in most of Conroy’s work the protagonist is fiercely good and surrounded by a coterie of fiercely good friends. Antagonists chip away at this goodness, but they never damage its core. This quality of sainted friendship is part of what makes Pat Conroy’s novels predictable, and it is certainly part of the reason that academia generally shuns his work. I certainly wouldn’t want every book I read to be so Manichean – but every once in a while entering this fiercely-defined world hits me like a shot of Vitamin B-12. Sometimes it’s nice to trick yourself into thinking you are part of a world that makes sense, morally speaking.
The protagonist of the novel is Leopold Bloom King – and yes, he is named after that Leopold Bloom. His mother is – among other things – a Joyce scholar, and she named her first son after Stephen Dedalus and her second son after Leopold Bloom. The novel opens on Bloomsday (June 16 for the uninitiated), when Leo is supposed to treat his mother with extra-special reverence. He wakes up, completes his paper route (rhapsodies galore), goes to Mass with his parents, and then goes to eat breakfast at a restaurant called Cleo’s, where his mother gives him a list of five vocabulary words to memorize and an agenda of tasks to complete that day. His father just sort of stands around and grins.
Pat Conroy is widely known for writing about terrible fathers – from the unapologetically autobiographical portrait of his own father in The Great Santini to the mean, violent shrimper in The Prince of Tides and the mean, drunken small-town lawyer and judge in Beach Music. In South of Broad, I can almost see Conroy challenging himself to write a novel whose protagonist has a kind, gentle father. He does so, but the father he creates here – Jasper King – is so effete that he seems made of Play-Doh. I mean, there is absolutely no chance that this guy has testicles. (I’m reminded of a line in Beach Music, when one of protagonist Jack McCall’s brothers complains that their new stepfather “lacks balls,” and Jack replies, “I like it when someone marries my mother and lacks balls.” Yes, I did know that by heart. What?) When I read South of Broad the first time in 2009, I had not yet read John Updike’s novel The Centaur, and this time I find myself conflating the father in that novel with Jasper King. I don’t know if Pat Conroy thought about the myth of the centaurs when he created Jasper’s character, but with his above-the-fray demeanor, his love of stargazing, and his kind, placating, imprecise approach to all interactions, he does seem like a bit of a centaur.
Leo’s mother, on the other hand, serves the role of “bad” parent, and while she is nowhere near as awful as the fathers in Pat Conroy’s other fiction, in some ways I react to her more negatively than I do to her male counterparts. This is sexist of me, I know, but this woman – Lindsay King – is so fanatically anti-maternal that her words and actions – which are remote, clinical, and sometimes painfully frank – seem much worse than they are. She is a former nun (more on this in a moment) with a Ph.D in modern literature who is currently working as a high school principal. She is organized and focuses and pulls no punches – but she is hardly one of the violent hulking monsters that usually loom over Pat Conroy’s protagonists. But it’s true – I find her chilly demeanor deeply disturbing, and I know it’s her total absence of maternal behavior that makes me feel that way.
When the novel opens, Leo is almost eighteen. On his birthday, he will be not only a legal adult but also free from the parole officer, community service regimen, and juvenile court oversight that have followed him through his teenaged years after an older student planted half a pound of cocaine in Leo’s pocket at a party when Leo was a freshman. His paper route, daily Mass, breakfast with his parents – and yes, even the vocabulary words – are part of a mandated routine designed to keep him supervised at every moment. In addition, his court-mandated community service – which Conroy unashamedly cribbed from To Kill a Mockingbird – involves washing the feet of an elderly asshole (and also performing various other self-maintenance tasks for the aforementioned senior citizen). Through it all, Leo is patient, respectful, and attentive to all the adults who hover and hound him – which basically means he is like no teenager ever.
In addition to all of his usual daily tasks, on this particular Bloomsday Leo’s mother gives him a list of other tasks, mostly of the welcome-wagony variety. First, she assigns Leo to bake some cookies for the new neighbors, who have twins Leo’s age. Then she tells him to go to the nearby orphanage and befriend two new arrivals – siblings named Niles and Starla who are known for running away from orphanages. Third, he is expected to meet his parents at the local yacht club for lunch, where they will be having lunch with two prominent old-money Charleston families, whose teenaged children have just been kicked out of their private school for being caught with drugs and will be enrolling at Leo’s school (which is also Leo’s mother’s school, of course, and Leo’s father teaches science there as well). Finally, Lindsay instructs Leo to go to the athletic office at his high school and introduce himself to the new football coach. The previous coach – we learn along with Leo – quit when he was told that the school would be integrated that year (1969) and that he would be coaching black players. The new coach is black, and the minute he was hired many of the team’s star players announced that they were leaving the school and following the old coach to his new job at a private school. Leo is tasked with letting the new coach know that he will rally as many of the white players as possible to accept the leadership of the new coach. The coach has – you guessed it – a son Leo’s age. At the beginning of the novel we are told that prior to this Bloomsday Leo has never had a friend his own age; now in the space of a few hours he has eight: Starla and Niles from the orphanage, Sheba and Trevor from the house across the street, Chad, Molly, and Fraser from the yacht club (Chad is the “bad friend”; Pat Conroy protagonists often have one “bad friend”), and Ike Jefferson, the coach’s son. Later they are joined by a ninth friend, Betty, an African American orphan who seems to have been brought into the novel gratuitously in order to provide Ike with a same-race love interest. I’m just saying.
In the past I’ve mentioned that all the secondary material about Joyce in this novel feels tacked on and inorganic to me, but as I write I’m realizing that with his long to-do list that takes him all over the city of Charleston, Leo is in some ways like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, decent and hapless, roaming the city and stumbling by accident, into a random, intense relationship (in Bloom’s case, as “father figure” to Stephen Dedalus) that will come to define him. Of course it’s a ridiculous coincidence that Leo makes all of these friends in the same day, and the novel would lose nothing if he met them more gradually. But whatever. The worlds that swirl around these characters are larger-than-life – Trevor and Starla’s delusional alcoholic mother and appalling psychopath of a father (Pat Conroy had to slip a psychopathic father into the novel somewhere), Niles and Starla’s horrific odyssey of abandonment and abuse, and the fantastic douchebaggery of Chad Rutledge – but the characters themselves are well drawn, real. I am enjoying spending time with them.
In addition to all of the above, Bloomsday of 1969 is also the day that Leo learns that his mother had a ten-year career as a nun before she married his father. Along with Leo, we learn early on that Jasper and Lindsay were in love with one another in high school and always planned to marry but that a new, charismatic young priest named Max Sadler convinced Lindsay to become a nun. In addition to being Bloomsday, June 16 is the day that Jasper drove Lindsay to her convent and said goodbye to her. As proof of his over-the-top saintliness, Jasper never recriminated Lindsay or Max Sadler and wrote to Lindsay every week for ten years, even though he knew that the mother superior would never let her read his letters, and every year on June 16 Jasper visited the convent, talked with the mother superior, and made a generous donation to the convent. After ten years, when the mother superior finally tells Lindsay (now Sister Norberta) about Jasper’s love for her, Lindsay/Norberta files for and eventually receives release from her vows. This is one of the plot strands in the novel that I think could probably have been cut out without damaging the novel. I think Lindsay’s “other life” as a nun serves the same function that the Marine Corps serves in Pat Conroy’s other novels: it situates the protagonist’s parent in an environment that makes him/her totally inaccessible and foreign to his/her children. Of course, having read the novel before, I know that the priest Max Sadler is one of the novel’s worst antagonists, and by integrating him not only into the King family’s present but also into its past, Conroy is preparing us for later revelations.
Pat Conroy’s novels always give middle fingers where middle fingers are due. This is one reason I like them; it is also one reason that they are, in general, morally simplistic. Over the course of just one day at the beginning of the novel, in addition to teaming up with his mother to aim a big “fuck you” at both old Charleston money and the Jim Crow south, Leo is faced with at least a dozen opportunities to be selfish or impulsive or flippant or impatient, and he accepts none of these opportunities. He is always kind and good-humored and self-deprecating and fair, and he always responds to acrimony with diffidence. Also – and this is something I have thought of during every re-read of a Pat Conroy novel that I’ve done in the past 3 ½ years – he never, ever gets tired. No Pat Conroy protagonist ever gets tired. They never retreat to dark rooms and put blankets over their heads, which is such a core element of my own life that I have trouble imagine anyone living without these little sanity breaks. I’ve read a great deal of Pat Conroy’s autobiographical writing, and the sense I get is that he is such a consummate extrovert that he truly does bounce from one high-stim environment to another, vanquishing bullshit left and right and he goes. This may be the source of some of the distance I feel between myself and Conroy’s protagonists, even when I enjoy reading about them. My God, I keep asking myself, When does he read? When does he escape from his overbearing mother and his maddeningly effete father? When does he take naps? And most of all, when does he read?