As Pat Conroy admits, his novels are born out of his own experiences. They are set in the South, generally in coastal South Carolina, which he calls home, and they frequently involve families dominated by an authoritarian father, like the title character in The Great Santini (1976), who routinely abuses his wife and his children, both emotionally and physically. In Conroy’s novels, this kind of unhealthy atmosphere produces harmful effects on the mother, who is torn between protecting her children and saving herself, and on the children themselves. Like Tom, Luke, and Savannah Wingo in The Prince of Tides (1986), they carry into their adult lives the burden of the past.
Although Conroy is preoccupied with this family pattern, which evidently reflects his own, he also deals with kindred manifestations of the human will to evil, which also involves the misuse of authority, the rejection of human rights, and a deliberate choice of evil over good. Thus in The Lords of Discipline (1980), Conroy draws on his own recollections of life at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, to show how easy it is in an authoritarian system for professed values to be perverted, for “tradition” to become an excuse for racism, “discipline,” for repression and brutality, and “honor,” for the denial of others’ humanity.
Beach Music is more ambitious than Conroy’s earlier novels. While it begins with a single family, it rapidly expands to include other stories, which in one way or another illustrate Conroy’s themes. His characters are victimized not only by patriarchal tyranny but also by other evils that power permits, including corrupt religion and misguided patriotism, opportunism and greed, and institutionalized hatred directed toward genocide.
The narrator of the novel is Jack McCall, who fled with his young daughter to Italy in order to escape allegations made by his hostile in-laws that he drove their daughter Shyla to suicide, and also from the South, his family, and himself. Jack did not intend ever to return home; when he learns that his mother is not expected to live, however, he has no choice. He goes back to Waterford, South Carolina, first for a short time, then, with Leah, for a much longer stay. Jack is soon immersed in the familiar smells, sounds, and sights of the Low Country and in the pattern of high tension and the high spirits which defines his tempestuous family.
Jack’s father, Judge Johnson Hagood McCall, is an alcoholic, dangerously appealing when sober, sadistically abusive when drunk. After years of misery, his wife Lucy left him, and now she is happily married to a doctor. Periodically, however, the Judge tries to assert his claim on her. Meanwhile, he is an ever- present worry for his children, especially Dallas McCall, who has the misfortune to be his father’s law partner. Another son, Dupree McCall, who likes peace and quiet, found a job in Columbia, a hundred and twenty miles away from the family and its problems. His work at a mental hospital is evidently less taxing than living in the bosom of the family. Tecumseh, or Tee, who is next to the youngest of the five McCall boys, gives autistic children the nurturing care which he feels he never received from his mother. Ironically, the child who monopolized Lucy’s love is the least stable of all her sons. John Hardin McCall, the baby of the family, is always excitable and usually irrational. From time to time, he goes completely berserk, and his brothers must come to his rescue.
One of the funniest episodes in Beach Music illustrates how John Hardin operates. As a protest against the destruction of the natural environment, he takes over the drawbridge on the Waterford River, which he insists should never have been built, and holds it open so that cars cannot cross. He finally agrees to surrender, but only if his four brothers will jump naked into the river. They do. The incident illustrates that despite the tension in the family, or perhaps fed by it, there is also a wild humor and a capacity for celebrating life. Ironically, it also shows a certain similarity between John Hardin and his father. Both of them use their very surrender of self-control as a certain means of controlling others—John Hardin through his “craziness,” and the Judge with his drunken rages.
The McCall marriage is only one of many in the novel which is less than perfect. While in Italy, Jack champions a woman whose husband thinks he has a right to beat her. Although he has to spend a night in jail, Jack emerges to find himself a hero, at least to the local women, if not to their husbands. This incident is closely linked to the story of Jack’s...