Pat Conroy's first novel in 14 years offers readers great dollops of psychological distress against a backdrop of Charleston society. Hurricane Hugo tears through South of Broad, but the 1989 storm that wrecked Charleston hardly matches the novel's emotional turmoil.
He writes of a high school clique, nine friends close since senior year in 1969, when Charleston schools finally capitulated to court-ordered integration. They were unfettered by racism or homophobia, with two blacks and an extremely out gay fellow in their circle.
The rigidity of Charleston society, its resistance to change, is an undercurrent throughout the novel, but this is a story about disparate friends coping with the hurts of childhood. It's also an epic exploration of wretched parenting; various members of the clique have been raped as children or abandoned by their families.
At the center of the novel is Leo King, saintly in his honor and loyalty to his friends. Leo's sense of honor begins to look like martyrdom when he marries one of his nutcase friends on the slim chance that he can improve her unhappy life. The wife, instead, disappears for months at a time, occasionally calling Leo to taunt him about her sexual exploits.
A plot unfolds amid all this human wreckage as the grown friends have a sort of Big Chill 20-year reunion before embarking on a dangerous mission to San Francisco to rescue their estranged gay friend from a scoundrel's clutches.
Whether one enjoys an unrelenting exploration of wounded psyches is, of course, a matter of taste. What makes South of Broad bearable for those who don't is Conroy's prose, with its vivid descriptions of Charleston and the city's stifling social order. And South of Broad, for all the sad characters, is a funny book. Conroy, author of four previous novels including bestsellers Beach Music and The Prince of Tides, two memoirs, a biography and a cookbook, again pours on sentimentality as thick as Frogmore stew. He so obviously loves his characters and all their foibles. Some readers might relish a crueler turn.