South of Broad by Pat Conroy

July 2, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): South of Broad tells the story of a group of high school friends who reunite 20 years later in order to rescue one of the bunch who is missing in San Francisco. Things begin in the summer of 1969 when Leopold Bloom King (named after a character in Joyce’s Ulysses) meets all the people who will become major players in his lives. They are: twins Sheba and Trevor Poe; siblings Fraser and Chad Rutledge; Molly Huger; Ike Jefferson, who is the first black football player at their high school; and orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead and Betty Roberts. This group becomes friends in high school, and intermarry in the following combinations: Niles and Fraser, Chad and Molly, Ike and Betty, Leo and Starla. Trevor is gay, and Sheba becomes a world-famous actress with a multitude of ex-husbands in her wake.

The main storyline begins in 1989 when Sheba returns to Charleston to engage Leo’s help in finding Trevor. Trevor had been living in San Francisco since after graduation, but hadn’t contacted Sheba in months. She’s worried about him, particularly since AIDS is making the rounds. Sheba is convinced that Trevor has the disease and has taken himself off to a corner to die.

Amazingly, everyone (except Chad) immediately drops what they are doing and follow Sheba to San Francisco for two weeks to find Trevor. Mission accomplished, they bring him back to Charleston so he can be comfortable and be surrounded by friends in his final days.

This main story is interrupted by lots and lots of flashbacks and sidetracks. Readers are told about the crew’s high school days involving football games, dating angst, and insecurity. We also get glimpses into their adults lives and see how those teenage problems turned into all-out dysfunction in later years.

There are a couple of twists along the way, and though we ride with the characters for more than 500 pages, very little seems to be resolved at the end.

Liked:

  • I always try to find at least one thing that I liked about a book, but it’s really hard to come up with something for South of Broad The only good thing I can remember is Conroy’s line about how Jasper embellished his letters to Sister Norberta (later his wife) when she first went into the convent: “He [Jasper] was the only man in history who ever worried about boring a nun.” (Or something to that effect.) I admit that line made me laugh out loud.

Disliked:

  • None of the characters seemed the least bit realistic. Leo in particular was far too saintly — even as a teen — and none of his actions were remotely plausible. Like the first day of senior year when he stopped a race riot by speaking up in front of the gathered crowd? I cannot imagine any 18-year-old in the world talking like that, especially one who was known as a loser in the school. Ditto for what he said in his mother’s office immediately afterward in order to get Wormy reinstated in school. Seriously, NO ONE in the main group came off as a real person. (Remember Sheba Poe going into Leo’s room and having sex with him the very first night they met? Without preamble or explanation? Whatever!!! These were high school kids in the 1960’s!) They always, ALWAYS sounded like characters in a book. Of course that’s what they are, but that’s not the effect the author is after.
  • This plot seemed pretty much recycled from Prince of Tides, which was fresh on my mind since I read that one this year too. Let’s see: South Carolina setting? Check. Deep love of all things southern? Check. Male-female twins who mean the world to each other? Check. Main character whose beloved older brother commits suicide? Check. (Ok, so Luke in PoT didn’t exactly commit suicide, but he didn’t go out of his way to avoid death either.). Psycho boogieman hunting people? Check. A million subplots that serve to draw the story out interminably? Check. Character(s) that leave(s) South Carolina to go “rescue” someone who has moved away? Check. Major mother angst? Check. Main character in a shitty marriage? Check. Saving a marine animal? Check. Geez, run out of ideas there, Pat?
  • This book was overwritten in nearly every way. The dialogue and descriptions constantly called attention to themselves by how overwrought and bombastic they were. It was extremely hard to wade through the entire thing, mostly because of the writing style. You get the feeling that if Conroy wrote noxycut reviews, he’d find a way to glorify the ingredients, exalt the effects, and generally make that product sound like God’s gift to mankind.
  • The “twist” at the end regarding why Steve killed himself was stupid. (Remember, I reveal SPOILERS, so read on at your own risk.) First of all, it was telegraphed from a mile away with the “No, father!” recollections, especially since Jasper King was such a great guy. That left Max, who was always around and seemed to serve no real purpose until the end. Second, how would Trevor even recognize that the kid in the film was Steve??? He never even met Steve, as he and Sheba moved in a long time after Steve died. I suppose Trevor might have seen Steve’s picture in the King household, but unless he studied the kid’s face very closely, I doubt he would have been able to recognize it in the 30-year-old grainy homemade movie. Hell, even Leo himself said he had trouble recollecting Steve’s features. How would Trevor be able to pick him out??? Again, just dumb.
  • I had a hard time believing that this group of “friends” stuck with each other for so long. For one thing, it was positively vomit-inducing to think that the couples that formed at the beginning of senior year in high school ALL went on to get married and stay married. I guess you can make the argument that back in the ’60s, more people married their high school sweethearts than today, but still… this happened to ALL of them? And some of the crew were so cruel to each other (ahem, Chad vs. Niles and Trevor) that it seemed highly implausible that they would have anything to do with each other as adults regardless of who was married to whom.
  • Some random antiques store owner leaves 18-year-old Leo more than half a million dollars worth of cash and property? Yeah, right.

Rating:

I honestly don’t know why Pat Conroy is so revered as a writer. I’ve now read Prince of Tides and South of Broad, and have been completely underwhelmed by both. South of Broad suffers from awful writing, unlikable and unrealistic characters, and an aimless storyline that wanders from place to place until finally arriving at an ending that the reader won’t even care about. I give this 1 star out of 5.

One Response to “South of Broad by Pat Conroy”

  1. If only I had read this review before I read this stupid book! Everything this reviewer says is “right on” and made me laugh my head off (no pun intended)

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