If you’ve never been “south of Broad,” here’s your ticket --- a book by a master storyteller revealing the small historical section of Charleston, South Carolina for what it is: a gem of American city culture. A culture beloved for its scarred and prideful past, lauded for its physical (almost astral) grace, it is a seductive beauty whose genteel face dazzles the casual visitor and whose dark soul is the carefully guarded secret of its conspiratorial denizens.
Pat Conroy found south of Broad as a young man, and like all of us first discovering it, he looked for ways to make it his own. He has succeeded in this novel, which had to be written if only for the title itself. He has made the city a partner in his creation. “Like Charleston,” the novel’s hero, Leopold Bloom King, says, “I had my alleyways that were dead ends and led to nowhere, but mansions were forming like jewels in my bloodstream.” By making his protagonist a paperboy, the author gives us a “Leo’s eye” view of the city:
“Meeting [Street] was spacious and cocky, with mansions on both sides of the street, a showboat of a street in a city brimful with them.”
“The gardens of Charleston were mysteries walled away in ivied jewel boxes emitting their special fragrances over high walls.”
“A freshwater river let mankind drink and be refreshed, but a saltwater river let it return to first things…a paperboy’s hands covered with newsprint, thinking the Ashley as pretty a river as ever a god could make.”
Leo is an ugly duckling whose early life has been marred not only by his grave bespectacled countenance, but by the bloody suicide of his golden-boy brother, Stephen Dedalus King. He finds a community of lost souls in high school, luckily, by being a kind person, his own good nature perhaps fueled by the example of his tolerant school teacher father. His mother, however, is another story. A former nun obsessed with James Joyce (as her sons’ names indicate), she terrorizes the local high school as its principal and refuses to admit (but makes it clear) that she loved Leo’s brother most.
To compensate for his dead brother and intolerable mother, Leo makes a life with his gaggle of friends: the lubricious Sheba and her fey brother Trevor, the damaged Starla and her brave brother Niles, and some aristocrats thrown in for sweet south of Broad flavor. Their needs and longings, ideals and failings interweave in a dense and vibrant tapestry with skeins that reach to San Francisco and the final unraveling of the reason why young Stephen killed himself in a gory bath of self-sacrifice.
Conroy’s previous literary triumphs, THE WATER IS WILDE, THE PRINCE OF TIDES and THE GREAT SANTINI, give no room for doubt as to his talents. Certainly, he loves prose to the point of excess, yet arguably, even in overuse (this novel is a hefty 528 pages), it’s his finest flaw. As when Leo confronts his beloved but tormented and tormenting Starla: “I know she is capable of presenting me with a whole array of women, all warriors, all hurt, and many of whom still love the man who found her in an orphanage tied to a chair.” Aspiring writers would give their left pinkie to craft one sentence like that per book; Conroy has them strewn about like so many anniversary roses.
If you want a feast of plot and image, you will find it here. Though he may offend the protective grande dames south of Broad ever vigilant to slights to the “Holy City” and displays more of Charleston’s seamy aspect than the tourist bureau may have wished, Conroy does not disappoint his readers. He writes with both hands and a whole heart.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 23, 2011
South of Broad