It has been a long wait for Pat Conroy's new novel but at last South of Broad is here. For devoted Conroy fans it is like the arrival of the Holy Grail, and one that will be treasured whatever its content. Luckily the content is just fine, thank you, and Conroy is still the master of his domain.
Nobody writes southern like Conroy writes southern and after this book has been read by the population at large there will be mass exoduses from other cities for people to establish residence in Charleston, South Carolina. This stately city is as much a character in Conroy's new book as is Leo King, the first person narrator. And whereas you will never get a chance to meet Leo King you can meet and greet Charleston just by going to the South Carolina coast.
In the book Leo's life takes place in Charleston and revolves around it. We meet him in the sixties just before he is to enter his senior year in high school. He has dealt with tragedy in the past as his older brother committed suicide when he was eleven. Leo discovered the body and this sight sent him spiraling out of control.
In the ninth grade when he was just getting his life back together he went to a party and held some drugs for an older football player. The police discovered the stash on him and he took the fall. His sentence was for community service and probation. He also had to change schools and now attends the one where his mother is the principal. A stern woman she seems unable to communicate totally with Leo since his brother's death.
As the book opens Leo is facing his senior year with some trepidation. He is not handsome or unusually bright, but he is kind and he is empathetic. Twins move in across the street from his home and he takes them cookies. Trevor and Sheba are going to be in his senior class and they become two of his best friends.
Also in his circle are orphans Niles, Starla and Betty. Leo's mother orders him to help shepherd them through their senior year. They are joined by Ike, the football coach's son. Leo's high school has never had a black coach and this puts another strain on the senior year activities.
Two more arrivals at the school are Chad and Molly. They were forced to leave their old school for "drug" reasons too. As members of the Charleston elite they are given more leeway for their crimes against society. They become members of Leo's group as well as Chad's sister Fraser.
They are an odd mix of black and white, rich and poor. They have absolutely nothing in common but also everything in common. Their friendships last and become richer and fuller with each day that passes. Conroy tells the stories of their triumphs and tragedies and makes the reader care more about these people than any other fictional characters in recent memory.
To live through a Conroy book is to live through an age of life. The outside world blurs while you are reading the story and his characters become so real to you that your own friends and family take a back seat. You are in Conroy land. It is a great place to visit and yes I would like to live there.
Conroy's characters are flawed in many ways but they are also triumphantly good. Leo King is almost too good to be true, but he never slips over the edge into unbelievability. As written by Conroy, he makes the reader aspire to be better; to be that kindler, gentler person that Leo is.
Years from now students in high school will be assigned to read the classics. SOUTH OF BROAD and other Conroy stories will definitely be on their list. He is the preeminent writer for claiming our attention and he is the preeminent writer for claiming our emotions.
Other writers' talents ebb and flow but Pat Conroy is consistent. He has the magic - always has and always will.
South of Broad is published by Doubleday. It contains 514 pages and sells for $29.95.