Even outside the rigid social structures of adolescence, Leopold Bloom King is something of a freak.
His severely bug-eyed appearance earns him the nickname “Toad” from his classmates. His domineering mother, a former nun who also serves as his high school principal, named him after the protagonist from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” much to his chagrin. And he’s a few years removed from a mental hospital, where he landed after discovering his older brother in the bathtub with his wrists slit.
Leo is also a criminal, serving the last days of his probation after police find him carrying a half-pound of cocaine. “South of Broad” (Nan A. Talese, $29.95) begins as the story of Leo’s struggle to redeem himself, but becomes the tale of the close-knit circle of friends who help him do it. They support each other over the following decades as they contend with illness, emotional breakdowns, death and other perils of adulthood.
Pat Conroy is known for sprawling, character-driven novels like “The Prince of Tides,” “The Great Santini” and “The Lords of Discipline.” “South of Broad” is another good read, but has too many flaws to be considered their equal.
Conroy’s latest novel revisits prominent themes from his previous books, namely suicide, sexual abuse, and race relations and class struggles in the Deep South. Also like Conroy’s past novels, “South of Broad” is part love letter to the author’s hometown of Charleston, S.C. It’s when he pays tribute to the so-named “Holy City” that Conroy’s prose is at its most lyrically authentic:
“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic.”
Conroy’s poetic flair has always been one of his strengths, but there are moments when he lays it on a little thick. The same could be said of the woe that he seeds so liberally throughout the book. There are many tragedies in “South of Broad,” any one of which could have sprouted its own novel. To see them all mashed together feels a bit gratuitous.
Furthermore, “South of Broad” has a way of rapidly shifting gears that will disorient some readers. The novel’s midsection resembles the seminal 1983 baby boomer film, “The Big Chill”: a festive but painful reunion of 30-something childhood friends, complete with infidelity and movie stars. Only this time, the participants are brought together not by a dead friend but a dying one. (The novel is partly set in 1980s San Francisco during the groundswell of the AIDS epidemic.)
“South of Broad” also borrows from other literary genres including the sports-tinged coming-of-age story and the blood-soaked suspense thriller. Two sibling characters are stalked by their abusive, deranged father, who eventually expands his campaign of terror to the rest of the group. Unfortunately, this plotline seems unnecessary, and is wrapped up a little too easily. So is another thread involving the death of Leo’s brother.
“South of Broad” is still a pleasure to read, and a must for Conroy’s fans. But it lacks much of the cohesion that held together his earlier books. Newcomers to his work may be better off starting there.