“Nothing happens by accident. I learned this the hard way, long before I knew that the hard way was the only path to true, certain knowledge. Early in my life, I came to fear the power of strange conveyances. Though I thought I always chose the safest path, I found myself powerless to avoid the small treacheries of fate. Because I was a timid boy, I grew up fearful and knew deep in my heart the world was out to get me. Before the summer of my senior year in high school, the real life I was always meant to lead lay coiled and ready to spring in the hot Charleston days that followed.”
So begins the first chapter of South of Broad, Pat Conroy’s lush, remarkable new novel set in Charleston, South Carolina, and spanning some 20 years from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Following a memoir (My Losing Season) and a homespun recipe collection (The Pat Conroy Cookbook), South of Broad is Conroy’s first novel in 14 years. And lucky for us, it’s another big, sprawling, heartbreaking novel, sure to please seasoned Conroy fans and new readers alike.
It’s said that great writers write what they know—and that’s certainly true of Conroy. As the son of a Marine colonel, Conroy channeled his experiences into his first novel, The Great Santini. Perhaps his most autobiographical work, it depicted a teenage son brutalized by a violent fighter pilot father. Childhood abuse and tragedy also haunt the Wingo children in the 1986 novel The Prince of Tides, most notably Savannah Wingo, who repeatedly tries to take her own life. Conroy’s own sister reportedly battled mental illness, and one of his brothers committed suicide. Though every Conroy novel is different, the themes of parental abuse, mental illness, forbidden love, Catholic guilt, reconciling one’s past with the present and, of course, the nature and meaning of Southern identity, come back over and over. And in South of Broad, Conroy artfully handles these seemingly unpalatable subjects once again.
Eighteen-year-old Leopold Bloom King, the son of Jasper and Lindsay King, is a deeply misunderstood teenager. Named after a character in Ulysses by his James Joyce-loving mother (who also happens to be the school principal and an ex-nun), Leo has spent much of his childhood trying to make sense of the suicide of the older brother he “idol-worshipped,” Steve, and his strained relationship with his icy, overbearing mother (who insists her own son call her “Dr. King”). Steve’s suicide shocked and devastated the King family, throwing Leo into a tailspin of anger, panic and depression.
After years of therapy and self-imposed exile, Leo vows that the summer of 1969 will be his fresh start. Over the course of the next few months, the once friendless Leo King meets and befriends an eccentric cast of characters. There is Ike Jefferson, the black son of the high school’s new football coach who is wary of getting close to whites in a time of racial tension; the orphaned siblings Niles and Starla Whitehead, assigned to Leo’s charge as they are begrudgingly integrated into the local high school; the beautiful Molly Huger, her entitled boyfriend Chad Rutledge and Chad’s tomboy sister, Fraser—members of the blue-blood Charleston elite, who seem almost untouchable to someone like Leo. And then there are the glamorous, flamboyant Poe twins—Sheba and Trevor—running from the demons of their family’s past and landing in the house across the street from the Kings. It is the Poe twins, with their mysterious, terrifying legacy, who will change Leo’s life—and the lives of those around them—forever.
It’s an impressive lineup of characters, and an ambitious, multi-faceted story of prejudice, privilege and love that moves from the heady days of a teenage Charleston summer to the bleak realities of AIDS-ravaged San Francisco. Conroy uses his many gifts as a storyteller and cultural observer to make South of Broad at once a complete portrait of a specific time and place, and also a classic, timeless coming-of-age story.
This is a novel for anyone who has had real, imperfect friendships, who has questioned themselves and their choices, and who has gone the distance (both metaphorically and literally) for someone they loved. Conroy is a master of American fiction and he has proved it once again in this magnificent love letter to his beloved Charleston, and to friendships that will stand the test of time.