Reviewed by Geoff S.
Pat Conroy’s new novel, South of Broad is a gift to readers who admire this writer for his unique and elegant style. A quote from the Houston Chronicle on the cover of his novel The Prince of Tides said that reading Conroy is like “watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel,” and I have to agree.
For an example of style, witness the narrator, Leopold King Bloom, introducing Charleston, South Carolina as more than a backdrop of this novel, but also a main character coursing through the blood: “I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula shape and sun-hardened and river-swollen.”
Leopold Bloom is the son of a father who is an unconditionally loving high school Science teacher and a judgmental mother, Joyce Scholar, ex-nun turned high school principle. Joyce’s love is reserved for the now dead Stephen Daedelus Bloom, whom Leopold found dead in the bathtub, his wrists slashed.
Leopold has split his teen years between a mental hospital and probation, in Steve’s shadow. Steve was the golden child, charismatic, good at everything, loved by everyone. Leo was the polar opposite – shy and friendless of people his own age at eighteen.
This all changes on Bloomsday, June 16 1969. Bloomsday is a celebration of Joyce’s Ulysses when everybody’s fates are supposed to turn and be intermingled. Leo meets a group of friends he will know through out his life. His mother assigns him projects: welcome the new neighbors across the street: Sheba and Trevor Poe, two characters, twins exotic as they come. Sheba, a born actress, and every man’s dream, Trevor, charming, flamboyant gay, musical. Leopond is also assigned to help integrate two orphans who are black, Niles and Starla, into the high school. And if that’s not enough, Ike, the new co-captain of Leo’s football is also black, and Leo is given the responsibility of ensuring that the white team member do not defect.
Together they each find something in the others to sustain them and test them; race lines are crossed and broken. They win together, lose together and survive the 1989 Charleston Hurricane together, the depiction of which is so graphic and visceral that you live through it yourself and retain an image you can imagine next to a Michaelangelo painting.
Structurally, South of Broad had has some flaws. The next section begins twenty years later. Sheba is an Oscar winning actress and on the Hollywood A-list. Leopold is the famous newspaper columnist. Trevor hasn’t been heard for quite awhile and is thought to be sick with AIDS and lost in San Francisco. Leopol is married to Starla, an absentee wife who is emotionally damaged beyond repair. They all come together and rescue Trevor and get him help. Then the book jumps back to 1969 briefly for a football game and a tie-in to a minor character they meet in San Francisco and finally forward again.
Brother Steven is the shadow that hovers over Leopold throughout; how can Leopold ever gain his mother’s love or the love of others in Steve’s shadow? There is a twist near the end that shakes Leopold’s faith and solves the riddle of Steve’s suicide. Once again, Leopold finds himself in a mental institution, sinking, then swimming, then soaring toward salvation.