Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Don't I Want To Do This? South of Broad Review

Yesterday morning, I finally finished reading South of Broad, the new novel by Pat Conroy. I got three pages from the end the night before and was royally pissed off that I couldn't stay awake for those last three pages. But between house buying and working again, I was pretty wiped out. I'm proud that I made it through around 40 pages that night.
When you love a book, you're supposed to NOT want it to end, right? When a writer you've loved since you were at least 15 years old puts out his first novel in years, you want to savor it. Or at least you want to tear through it once and read it again, so you can savor it on the re-read.
What the hell happened between me and Pat Conroy? I feel like I missed something.
The Great Santini may be the only book that absolutely every member of my immediate family read, and all around the same time. I'm sure my mom and my brother would argue over who recommended it to whom, but the bottom line is we all loved it. My kid brother and I can still crack each other up with Mary Ann Meecham's blasphemous jokes that got Ben in trouble during CCD class. There are whole sections of it that will always stick with me. And although the film is one of my favorite screen adaptations ever, it still bugs me that there's no Sammy Wertzberger and not enough Mary Ann in it.
I was in college when The Prince of Tides came out, and it was only after I read that at least once that it occurred to me to read The Lords of Discipline and The Water is Wide. Man did I fall in love with Tides, although it's hard to remember being in the throes of that mania. In my senior year I took a wonderfully brutal writing course that required an exhaustive "style report" on an author, in which I had to count and classify words and sentences to describe the effects of the prose. It's pretty obvious which author I chose, or else why would I bring it up here? Duh. Anyway, I just dug out that style report to refresh my memory, and according to me Conroy's style changed a lot after Santini. Apparently that one was far more straightforward and less ornate in its vocabulary than Discipline and Tides. And I guess it was around that time I heard the rumor that Conroy's editor actually kinda sorta writes his books for him, but with those kinds of rumors you tend to choose whether or not to believe them. Even if it's true, and his editor doesn't mind, why should I?
Early in 1990, my cousin presented me with an inscribed hardcover of The Prince of Tides. The inscription reads: "To Stevie D'Arbanville, for the love of books and words, Pat Conroy, Dec. 8, 1989, Champing Hall." How awesome is that? A few years later, when Beach Music came out, he did a signing in NYC and I actually got to meet him. But it was a cattle call and it's not like we got to have any kind of conversation; all I remember is when I asked him to sign my dust-jacket-less The Water is Wide, he pointed to the picture of himself in the 60s and said, "I remember being this young." He didn't inscribe my books, only signed them, and as Beach Music was a first edition and an incredible disappointment to me I'm tempted to sell it now. I actually kind of hated Beach Music. I couldn't buy into the characters or the plot, and that caused me to reconsider all the improbable events in his earlier novels. I also felt that some of the stuff he tried to do was really obvious, and I realize as I'm writing this that it doesn't make sense and I need an example to illustrate. But I don't feel like it. Nyah.
I didn't read his book about basketball. Maybe I should. In the books I liked, I always enjoyed the way he wrote about sports. He made the games exciting to read for someone who hates sports, especially in Santini where they're crucial to the plot. But I guess Beach Music kind of soured me on him in general. Would I have read South of Broad if my folks hadn't bought it for me?
Maybe not. So here's the deal, but I'll warn ya, it's complicated.
I enjoyed reading it. I just have no idea why. The main character is not believable at all. For all of his sardonic jokes, he is an over-the-top goody-goody; always knocking himself out to help other people and never able to please his starchy, ex-nun mother. (Maybe what really annoyed me about the book is its portrayal of Joyce scholars as crusty, humorless old gits. Come on! Ulysses is the funniest book ever written!) The only character I really liked, I guess, was Toad's father. Coach Jefferson was also cool, but none of the characters get enough page time to be fully fleshed out. As in Beach Music, there are insanely over-the-top plot points that don't have the impact they're meant to have. And I'm not sure if it's because there are so many characters, but they seem more like caricatures; every character is there to represent a type, and despite their differences our hero unites them all in mutual respect and love. Are you puking yet? Well then, throw in a bunch of self-righteous battles with segregationists, homophobes, and old Southern nobility, not to mention a hurricane. I think it's just too much for one book. I'll put the rest of my rant below for anyone who hasn't read it yet (do you love how I'm pretending anyone will read THIS?)

******************** HERE BE SPOILERS !!!*************************

- Monsignor Max. It was so freaking obvious from Page One. And would he really be stupid enough to film it? Of course not, but how else could our hero get irrefutable proof?

- I suppose we're meant to guess that Trevor went back to San Francisco because his sister was killed, and if she hadn't been, he would have stayed in Charleston? Even though she lived in Hollywood? And do we even know where he went? I think we're just told that Toad took him to the airport. What, was his AIDS cured?

- I know people can freeze when they're really scared, but when Toad is 17 he's a football player. Up until the end of the attack on him, I can buy that he's too scared to do anything. But when the guy starts painting on his forehead with nail polish, "taking his time with it," why doesn't Toad just punch him in the nuts? There's no way to apply nail polish without using both hands. It's stupid.

- I also didn't buy the conversation when Toad finds out his mom was a nun. There are little things that could have been done there to make it sound more realistic. It also seems crazy that they told his one-year-older brother but not him. It makes no sense.

- Chad was too much of a douche for anyone to bother with. Period.

Again the real mystery remains: What exactly did I like about it?