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 depressing, BEACH MUSIC moves to a happy ending. Lucy sees her children back together once more and, like the other grandparents, gets to know her granddaughter, and, much to his surprise, Jack finds in an old love a new reason to make a commitment to life.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlanta Journal/Constitution. July 2, 1995, p. L8.
Chicago Tribune Books. July 16, 1995, p. 3.
The Christian Science Monitor. June 29, 1995, p. B1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 25, 1995, p. 1.
The New York Times Book Review. C, July 2, 1995, p. 7.
Newsweek. CXXVI, July 17, 1995, p. 57.
San Francisco Review of Books. XX, July, 1995, p. 24.
Southern Living. XXX, September, 1995, p. 100.
Time. CXLV, June 26, 1995, p. 77.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, July 2, 1995, p. 5.
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...
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