Beach Music (Magill Book Reviews)
Like his best-selling novel THE PRINCE OF TIDES (1986), BEACH MUSIC is set in South Carolina’s Low Country, where Conroy spent his formative years, and tells the story of a family almost destroyed by an authoritarian father. The oldest of Judge Johnson Hagood McCall’s five sons, Jack, moved to Italy after his wife committed suicide. Thus he could ignore his own family and avoid his in-laws, who had tried to get custody of their granddaughter Leah. Only the approaching death of his mother Lucy impels Jack to return to South Carolina, where he has no choice but to deal with his past.
Although the process is painful, it is also rewarding. Jack finds that since replacing the Judge with a devoted new husband, Lucy has a new warmth. Moreover, the brothers fall easily into their old closeness, laughing, insulting each other, and sometimes outraging the community. Through Leah, Jack comes to an understanding with his wife’s parents, and he even comes to terms with his father.
Although BEACH MUSIC is a long and complicated book, almost overloaded with characters and anecdotes, it is unified by a single theme: the abuse of power. This evil tendency in human nature explains family violence in the Low Country, murder in Appalachia, spying and betrayal during the Vietnam era, or the horrors of the Holocaust. Conroy does believe, however, that human beings can choose good over evil, and when they do, good can triumph. Although often troubling, even...
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Beach Music (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
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...
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Again Conroy uses first-person narration. Because Jack McCall knows his friends and their family members so well, he is able to accurately present their points of view. The novel is structured in layered vignettes which vary in time reference. The narration moves from present to past and back again, complimenting Conroy's theme of the acceptance of the past in order to control one's future. Each flashback episode reflects upon a main character to explain a background which has helped determine his or her present situation. For instance, the Holocaust stories of Ruth and George Fox help Jack to understand one reason why Shyla committed suicide, and the background of Jordan's interaction with his father is necessary for the reader to understand their fractured relationship. The fracturing and separation of generations is echoed in the divorces of various couples and the physical separation of Jack from not only his friends and families but also his country.
Conroy supplies abundant mythological aspects mixed in with reality, some of which may tax the reader's acceptance. His tale of the behemoth manta ray which leaps back and forth across the boys' fishing boat is, if not believable, at least replete with beautiful imagery, significance and symbolism. A porpoise's supplying an "accompaniment" to the singing of a child with Down's Syndrome could be labeled improbable, yet it brings with it echoes from stories through the ages past, in which those individuals...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Beach Music is the lengthiest Conroy novel yet, containing an expanding cast of characters and mythological-type tales featuring each. Readers might be interested to know that Conroy's manuscript he presented to his editor was almost twice as long as the novel in its final form. This novel offers many of the Conroy themes readers have come to expect, with the addition of the Holocaust and the Vietnam War as specific causes of atrocities by man against man. The author's inclusion of narrative focused upon the present, in addition to that focused upon the past through flashbacks, will offer all ages of readers subjects with which they are familiar. One way to approach discussion would be to separate readers into groups made up of individuals possessing a "first hand" familiarity with the various eras, i.e. World War II, the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Vietnam era, the years bearing the effects of the Vietnam War, and modern times.
1. What is the significance of Lucy's particular type of cancer as related to the ongoing theme of family betrayal found in Conroy's novels? Why do the brothers laugh when they discover the type of illness Lucy has?
2. Does religion act as a character in the novel, or is the prominence of religion a symbolic device, keeping the reader aware of an ongoing battle with faith versus the tangible?
3. How do animal protectors in Conroy's novels enlarge the humanity of the characters? What are the...
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Readers familiar with Conroy's previous works will recognize all of those social concerns important to the novelist in addition to a renewed focus upon war and its effects which may stretch over several generations. Suicide also occupies Conroy's attention as his narrator attempts to come to terms with that of his wife. The narrator's extended family also must face the death of its loved and hated matriarch, a new approach to coming to terms with the mother in Conroy novels. Mental illness receives attention through the figure of the schizophrenic John Hardin and his brother, Tee, who works with the mentally ill and Dupree, who works with autistic children. Insanity in general becomes central to the novel as not only mental incapacities, but also emotional ones, seem to consume many of the characters. The idea of healing across generations acts as both a theme and a point of social concern, as the novel depicts the attempts of those splintered by political and religious differences to reunite after the passage of many years. The idea promulgated in the 1960s of the "generation gap" comes full circle as the novel's youngest generation acts to heal the gap between the two previous ones.
Environmental concerns figure strongly as Conroy educates the reader to the dangers faced by the logger turtles of South Carolina. They are threatened due to a rapid overdevelopment of the coast line and the erection by humans of rock barricades against rising water which...
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The literary precedents noted for the Prince of Tides also apply to this novel, and the Prince of Tides itself may be included as a precedent. All of the familiar Conroy characters and issues are present. Due to the autobiographical nature of Conroy's novels, each one seems to pick up where the previous novel leaves off in terms of themes and the slowly changing ideas of the narrator. An example would be this narrator's gentler attitude toward his mother as she moves toward death. Again, readers will note even more strongly in this novel than in Prince of Tides the use of many elements of the traditional quest story, listed above. A close examination of, for instance, Homer's Odyssey reveals Odysseus (or Ulysses) involved in a sea voyage, both to escape his enemies and in hopes of returning home. Jack's attempted escape from, and eventual return to, South Carolina as he crosses the Atlantic remains reminiscent of Odysseus' voyage. Many fantastic creatures appear in the Odyssey; in Beach Music, the dolphins, the turtles, the porpoise that responds to song and especially the great manta ray parallel those creatures. Jack's very involvement with stories and story telling reminds one of the weaving of Penelope (Odysseus' devoted wife), an activity which later became symbolic of storytelling; most readers are familiar with the phrase, "weaving a tale."
As he continues to turn out new novels, Conroy repeats his own...
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All of Conroy's previous novels may be called "related titles," not because they include identical characters, but because the characters, situations and techniques are so similar. While his novels may be compared to those of other Southern writers such as Welty and McCullers, as mentioned above, he seems unique in his constant mythmaking and in his use of the imagery of sea creatures to help advance his plot and support his themes.
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