The Week in Books 2009, No. 40

The world is full of books that are worth your time. Pat Conroy’s South of Broad is not one of them.

I hate to say this, because I think that in some ways Pat Conroy is a gifted writer, and a novel set in Charleston that covers truly interesting topics like the start of school integration in the deep South and how Hurricane Hugo impacted the historical mansions South of Broad has a lot of potential, but I think Conroy got lazy and his novel suffered terribly for it.

I can’t recommend this book for the following reasons:

1) The book is about 150 pages too long. The story sort of sprawls about and meanders, which might be some sort of deep reference to the pace and city layout of Charleston, or it might just mean the book could have used tightening up. I know Conroy is capable of precise writing, and that shows in some places in the book. I just wish it would have been pervasive.

2) Much of the dialogue sounds fake and is grating. I feel like Conroy should have taken his draft and read it to himself out loud. Then he would have gotten to most of the dialogue between the main characters and thought, “Pat, buddy, we need to scrap this trash and start over.”

3) I felt like many of the characters, especially the bit players, were stereotypes. Most people aren’t totally stereotypical. Even if they were, it doesn’t make for clever writing. When Conroy did try to break the stereotypes, he was so heavy handed with it that it didn’t ring true.

4) Lots of the plot twists were too predictable. Especially the ones that seemed like those lame commercials for cop dramas billed “ripped from the headlines!!!!” At times I felt like Conroy sat down and made a list of every sensational thing that’s been part of the cultural milieu for the past few decades and tossed it in this book as a subplot. The worst part was that many of them were added in such a way that it was obvious from the beginning but then showcased later as if it was a plot twist.

5) Conroy evidently thought it would be droll to name one of the couples that forms the group of main characters Niles (guy) and Fraser (girl). Wait, did anybody miss the 1990s sitcom reference? Aren’t you giggling at how clever that is? No? Neither was I. It was distracting and annoying. I like the Southern custom of naming girls family names, and I personally think Fraser (or Frasier) can go either way as a guy’s name or a girl’s name, but pairing it with Niles was not clever, just dumb, and a waste of a good character name.

6) Remember your grandmother telling you that only people with poor imaginations use cuss words? Pat Conroy should heed your grandmother’s advice. I think it’s important to write in the voice your characters would really use, and sometimes I think it’s appropriate to use language you wouldn’t normally use yourself to flesh out a character. That said, if you can’t convey to me that your character is gay without using completely vile and horrifying language, you need to quit writing until you develop better language skills. The language alone would keep me from recommending this book. It’s completely abominable and, worse, it was UTTERLY unnecessary to the plot or character development of the book. I guess trash sells, but it doesn’t make strong writing.

7) Closely related to the previous point, if you are unable to convey the fact that a bedroom scene occurred and what it meant to the characters involved without giving the reader a needlessly lascivious play-by-play account using almost unbelievably coarse vocabulary to do so, you lack imagination or are deeply lazy. I think Pat Conroy has a good imagination, so I can only conclude that he was beset with the latter problem while writing South of Broad.

Needless to say, I skimmed a lot of parts of this book and I only finished it because there were a few pieces of the story that were interesting and I feared that if I didn’t finish the book I would keep thinking about it, and I don’t care to waste any more of my life thinking about this book than is absolutely necessary. I wish I had not read it at all in the first place.

It’s too bad that Conroy got bogged down writing this novel, because I think he could have written a really moving and interesting book about Charleston that would have been stronger and more resonant. What a wasted opportunity.

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