My book club met last week to discuss a book I loved, South of Broad by Pat Conroy. I was surprised to find most people who were big Conroy fans hated the book. Apparently, this one is considered one of his worst! Critics say it’s melodramatic and the prose is over the top at times. A favorite criticism our group read was from author Chris Bohjalian:
It’s possible that the sobbing and sniveling occasionally felt inauthentic to me because I am a priggish New Englander who is uncomfortable with what may be a Southern penchant for drama. But as a novelist, I know all too well that there are few easier ways to wrest sniffles from a reader than to have a couple of real men cry like babies in each other’s arms or a good woman stoically sniff back her tears. Been there, done that.
I’m a fan of Bohjalian and despite the negativity, I would say I’m not a fan of Conroy. As always, we started with a little background on the author. Conroy lives in San Francisco and went to Citadel. His father was in the military and he moved a lot as a child. His father was violent and abusive and Conroy wrote about this in his book, The Great Santini. The book was presented as evidence in his parents’ divorce case. Conroy taught English and was fired from one of his jobs for pointing out racial problems in the school. So much of this made it into the story of Leo King and I’m amazed one person could experience so much and turn it into a story, let alone the number of books Conroy has written that draw inspiration from his life.
It was hard to ignore all the terrible things Leo and his friends had to face in the book. All the bad parts of their high-school years and adulthood came up: AIDS, child abuse from the clergy, Hurricane Hugo, racial integration, and racism. Some people thought it was over the top that all of these things happened in the same novel, but I think leaving them out would have been an omission of the times.
The one thing that could have been left out might be Steve’s abuse at the hands of Monsignor Max. Steve was the perfect son to his parents and I think that put a lot of pressure on him to act perfectly. That almost set him up to fail. It’s hard to maintain that level of expectation. If Steve had told his parents, we’re not sure they would have believed him anyway.
Leo was a very kind person and unfortunately, some of the other characters took advantage of him. He was used by Molly, Starla, and Sheba most notably. Maybe it was him not willing to stand up to a woman. He would do things for people that were beyond what was asked of him, like making benne wafers for his new neighbors when it could have been simple chocolate chip cookies. He cleaned and washed Mr. Cannon’s feet in an obvious impersonation of Mary Magdalen and Cannon appreciated it so much he gave him a house.
Starla used Leo more than anyone else. No one wanted them to stay together, even his staunchly Catholic mother. Mrs. King might have preferred seeing him with Sheba! We thought he only stayed with Starla because of his strong Catholic beliefs. This was as much a criticism of marriage as it was of the church.
The group of friends was such a rag-tag bunch that it seemed strange. They had to overcome socioeconomic status (the twins and the Rutledge’s) and race (Ike) but it somehow worked. Fraser and Niles’ relationship was a big bond for the group and Chad was roped in because of football despite his racist father and upbringing.
The twins’ father’s death seemed almost a little convenient. Someone wondered if Niles knew he was in the shed and that’s why he locked him in there. I proposed that Charleston killed him. The city was brought to life so much in the book it was almost a character. Maybe this was the one thing Charleston could do for our human characters.
I’m going to be missing this group until May because of school and I’m very sad about that. I do look forward to reading some books of my choosing, but I’ll miss having someone to discuss them with.
Until next time, write on.