Review

South of Broad

by Pat Conroy

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
by Pat Conroy

  • Publication Date: May 4, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • ISBN-10: 0385344074
  • ISBN-13: 9780385344074