Pat Conroy writes addictive baroque melodramas. At their best, they are gorgeous love letters to his home, the South Carolina salt marshes and the city of Charleston. "The Prince of Tides" celebrated the state; in "South of Broad," Conroy's first novel in 14 years, the lovely city swans through as its star.
But Conroy never writes one sentence when five will do and apparently he's never met a metaphor he couldn't mangle. "I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and swollen." Or do you prefer "I realize words are never enough; they stutter and cleave to the roof of my mouth when I need them to blaze, to surge out of my mouth like an avenging hive of hunter wasps."
The narrator, Leo King, tells the story of a singular cohort of friends who met in senior year in 1969 and come together again in 1989 to help one of their own.
Leo, a shy, damaged boy, is just starting to bloom into a sane and kind adulthood. After finding his revered older brother in the bathtub, dead of self-inflicted cuts, he has spent years in mental hospitals. His father is a saint, his mother a tyrannical ex-nun who is also his high school principal.
Leo takes under his wing the glamorous twins Trevor and Sheba Poe, who have been running all their lives from a sadistic rapist father. He also befriends Niles and Starla, who have fled from orphanage to orphanage with no anchor in life. He helps integrate Peninsula High and its redneck football team by persuading white players to work for a black coach and play alongside his son, Ike.
Their stories unfold in a relaxed, expansive style, with many hymns of praise for the game of football, except for the frightening appearance of the twins' father.
Twenty-one years later, Leo is Charleston's famous newspaper columnist, and, as a Catholic, is trapped in an ill-starred marriage to the unstable Starla. Ike is police chief, Niles has married into one of the city's royal families, and Sheba is a world-famous movie star. She enlists the old gang to find Trevor, dying of AIDS and gone missing in San Francisco. They haul him back to Charleston, well aware that the sociopathic Poe Sr. will be coming for them.
Now the novel revs up to movie climaxes: a brutal murder, Poe's threats and the onslaught of Hurricane Hugo. It's all exciting, except for the fact that the characters can't stop bantering even in the midst of crisis and tragedy. At first, the dialogue is fun, but by book's end I wanted to swat the quips away.
This is a novel redolent of summer, so betake yourself to the veranda with a mint julep or two and settle in for a luxuriant read.
Brigitte Frase is a writer in Minneapolis.