South of Broad

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708

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...

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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.

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 will accept her on her own terms. The coach’s son, Ike, thinks he must constantly assert his rights as a young African American, and he is distrustful of any white person who befriends him. The three orphansBetty, an African American girl, and Niles and Starla, a brother and sister from the mountains of North Carolinafight the prejudices associated with their social status.

Two teens who move into a house across the street from Leo’s family are the oddest members of the group: Sheba is an aspiring movie star who flaunts her sexuality with astonishing success but worries constantly about Trevor, her gay brother. Trevor endures both physical and emotional abuse from the southern rednecks who populate their school. Collectively the novel’s band of socially maladjusted teens manages to break down quite a few racial and social barriers, though sometimes at great personal cost, in a city that prides itself on maintaining its traditions.

The second part of the book skips forward twenty years, when all ten characters have settled into careers and most have married other members of their group. Not all these marriages are happy. Chad and his longtime girlfriend, Molly, appear to be an ideal couple. Ostensibly, it is his work as a lawyer that keeps him away from home, but there are indications that he is carrying on affairs. Molly suffers from a malaise akin to that described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963) as affecting women who have come to define themselves exclusively as wives and mothers. Leo’s marriage to Starla, one of the orphans, has turned out disastrously, and she has left him to live alone in the mansion he inherited from a former customer on his paper route. Ike and Betty are both police officers and the only truly happily married couple in the group.

Sheba Poe has become an established Hollywood star, but her brother Trevor has lost himself in the gay community in San Francisco. Sheba’s return to Charleston to seek help from her former high school classmates in finding her brother precipitates the action of this section of the novel. The entire group travels across the country to find Trevor, who is near death apparently from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The trip puts them all in harm’s way, moreover, as they are stalked by a shadowy character whom they eventually identify as Sheba and Trevor’s estranged father, a psychopath who sexually abused Sheba and Trevor when they were children. This novel of social commentary thus turns into a thriller.

The climax of the novel occurs after the group has returned to Charleston with Trevor in tow. The summer of 1989 is drawing to a close, and the city is bracing for Hurricane Hugo, which will effectively change not only the lives of the characters but the face of Charleston as well. Trevor and Sheba’s father has apparently followed them back to Charleston and is terrorizing them all. Leo and his friends are running scared of the sinister assassin, who eventually manages to murder Sheba. The hurricane proves to be both scourge and savior, as the would-be killer falls victim to a force of nature with which even he cannot contend. In the final pages of the novel, Leo learns what really happened to Steve to cause his suicide, his mother returns to the convent, and it seems that life for the circle of friends is returning to some sense of normalcy.

The novel’s unusually complicated and perhaps even contrived plot, filled with interesting coincidences and innumerable twists and turns, is reminiscent of a Victorian triple-decker, although it is only half the length of most such texts. What makes South of Broad so compelling, however, is Conroy’s ability to make people and places come alive. His penchant for populating his work with quirky eccentrics and social misfits, as well as with lovable if sometimes frustrated heroes and heroines, may call to mind some of the best works of Charles Dickens or William Faulkner.

As a group, the characters in South of Broad offer a portrait of the various classes that made up the social landscape of Charleston in the pivotal decades when the city moved out of the shadows of its antebellum past. They can easily be viewed as representative of certain types, such as the disgruntled white Southern male aristocrat, the closet liberal forced to express publicly his distaste for racial prejudice, the alluring southern debutante, the white-trash hillbilly from Appalachia, the persecuted homosexual, and the oppressed new woman who knows there must be more to life than a marriage that seems to her to resemble white slavery. Nevertheless, each of the principal characters is highly individualized, complex, and intriguing.

What is more, much as John Berendt does of Savannah, Georgia, in the nonfiction Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), Conroy makes the city of Charleston a character in its own right. Conroy knows Charleston quite wellboth its physical and its social landscape. Conroy uses the city in a fashion similar to that employed by Joyce in his depiction of Dublin, Ireland, in Ulysses, a book referenced frequently in South of Broad. Conroy’s prologue, rhapsodic in tone and filled with insight into the character of the place he calls the Mansion on the River, evokes images of southern grandeur and decadence.

One of Conroy’s themes, which might easily be missed by one caught up in the suspenseful plot, is the notion that in recent memory cataclysmic storms have reshaped the landscape of the South, both literally and metaphorically. The changes wrought by and upon Conroy’s principal characters are paralleled by the changes that Charleston itself undergoes in the tumultuous decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s, when so many social customs, including ones based on class and race, were forced to bend before inexorable forces that swept the United States. It is not surprising that Conroy chooses to set the climax of his novel during Hurricane Hugo, which was the worst storm endured by the residents of Charleston in modern history. Just as the city’s physical landscape was changed by this storm, so the storm unleashed earlier by the Civil Rights movement eventually caused a change in the social climate of the city where the Civil War began. The neighborhood south of Broadand the states south of the Mason-Dixon linewill never be the same again.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39

Booklist 105, no. 17 (May 1, 2009): 5.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 13 (July 1, 2009): 673.

Library Journal 134, no. 12 (July 1, 2009): 80.

The New York Times Book Review, August 23, 2009: 22.

Newsweek 154, no. 6/7 (August 10, 2009): 59.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 22 (June 1, 2009): 32.

The Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2009, p. W12.

The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2009, p. D5.

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