South of Broad

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Pat Conroy is a deliberate craftsman who produces novels more slowly than more prolific contemporary writers. His work reflects the care he gives to plotting, characterization, and story lines. Moreover, the notoriety he received for writing the screenplay adaptation of his novel The Prince of Tides (1986), a commercially successful movie starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte, did not lure him into the Hollywood scene. Some of his predecessors’ careers as novelists have been sidetracked or ended by their sojourn into the world of cinema. Conroy, by contrast, has remained dedicated to his proper craft. Ever since he published The Great Santini in 1976, he has worked diligently to create fiction that has wide popular appeal yet also displays a rich depth of characterization and sensitivity to important social issues.

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As a consequence of this commitment, Conroy’s novels often provide intellectual and emotional stimulation to more discerning readers and critics. Reading a Conroy novel can often keep one on the edge of one’s chair in suspense, cause one to burst out laughing, or occasionally bring tears to one’s eyes. Reading South of Broad is likely to bring out all of these emotions, while at the same time keeping readers guessing about what will happen to the large cast of characters who constantly seem to be getting into trouble.

In South of Broad, Conroy tells the stories of ten people who develop lifelong relationships with one another during their senior year in high school in Charleston, South Carolina. The novel’s narrator and the central figure in the group, Leopold Bloom King, is the younger son of the school’s principal. This rather headstrong woman, a former Catholic nun, has married a man who is exceptionally kind toward Leo but continually deferential toward his wife in matters great and small. Leo’s motherDr. King, as she reminds everyoneis a frustrated expert on James Joyce who has named her sons for the principal characters in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Sadly, her elder son Steve (named for Stephen Dedalus as Leo is named for Leopold Bloom) committed suicide at age twelve.

Leo suffers a number of social maladies: The second and never favored son, he is also physically unattractive (his friends call him Toad) and unusually awkward and self-conscious. He believes that he is somehow responsible for his brother’s death and must continually make amends for this perceived transgression. To make matters worse, when the novel opens he is completing a three-year probation imposed when he was convicted of a drug charge because he failed to reveal the real culprit, a more popular student at the school. His sentence involves doing community service, and, because he is not allowed to drive, he delivers newspapers on his bicycle through the upscale neighborhood south of Broad Street.

One of Conroy’s principal concerns throughout the novel is tracing Leo’s rise from social outcast to the central figure in a group of friends whose lives continually intersect over the next twenty years. It is certainly a strange assemblage, including a brother and sister from a high-society Charleston family who have been expelled from an elite private academy, the brother’s girlfriend, another brother and sister whose shady past and flamboyant behavior make them objects of attention and derision, and the son of the school’s first African American head coach. The group also includes a trio of students sent to the school from a Catholic orphanage.

The first part of the book, set in 1969, describes the group’s senior year in high school. Each character seems to have a particular cross to bear. Chad, the disgraced scion of prominent Charleston socialites, finds it hard to accept his fellow classmates, whom he deems beneath his class. His tomboy sister Fraser is uncomfortable with the thought of becoming a woman, because she thinks no boy...

(The entire section contains 1747 words.)

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