Fans of Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel, The Prince of Tides, treasure it defensively; neither time nor reexamination nor even the sight of Barbra Streisand playing a taloned psychiatrist has diminished their ardor. Tides, a deeply felt Southern saga told by a man whose sister’s suicide attempts force him to sift through his family’s history, offered readers something new — a melodrama for the dawning age of dysfunction. Conroy’s family-tree mystery was tailored to those who believe that a rotten childhood bestows upon its owner a lifetime of recrimination and malaise that can be resolved only by revealing old secrets and talking them through, again and again.
In Beach Music, Conroy returns to Tides country both geographically — coastal South Carolina — and emotionally. But this time, he’s not content to touch a nerve; he wants to beat it numb. Beach Music is a hit parade of woe, a Top 40 countdown to see who had the Worst Childhood Ever that follows Tides’ template in everything from its lugubrious overwriting to the suicide that sets the book’s hero, food writer Jack McCall, on his course of self-discovery.
Make that several courses. For when Jack returns to South Carolina after a five-year exile prompted by his wife Shyla’s leap from a bridge, he must reconcile with the following: His difficult dying mother. His nasty alcoholic father. His cruel father-in-law. His cold mother-in-law. His schizophrenic brother. His childhood friend’s hateful father (there can never be too many bad dads in a Conroy novel). His first love, Ledare. His backstabbing schoolmate Capers (those are first names). And the spectres of Vietnam and the Holocaust, or at least the history-lite usages of them that appear here. That’s quite a banquet of resentment, and it’s topped with the three most popular flavors of literary guilt — Jewish, Catholic, and white-liberal.
To say that Conroy is trying to do too much doesn’t begin to convey how overloaded Beach Music is. It’s an exploded piñata of a novel that spills its contents across your lap, hoping you’ll find something to your taste. Once Jack, a chatty fellow who can never resist telling you what he just ate, arrives back home, he has time to do no more than revisit old foes and shame them into recounting, in massive monologues, Something Bad — which, in Conroy’s novels, is almost always the dreadfulness of their own pasts, which will in turn explain the dreadfulness they inflicted on others.
All this speechmaking erupts so randomly that at the novel’s climax, several characters, displaying inexplicable congeniality, show up on a stage and casually natter on about their most agonizing estrangements under the interested eye of a TV producer (an all-too-apt substitution for a group-therapy leader). Their blowsy cavalcade of revelations becomes almost comically competitive.
You can laugh at much of Beach Music’s tutued-elephant gracelessness; that’s probably all you can do when struggling to translate phrases like ”the sunburned, dark-complexioned days which finger-painted the river in the tenderness of its insomniac retreat.” But when Conroy keeps his scale small, the book’s sloppy emotionalism can give way to shapely sentimentality. Beach Music’s best scenes — a little boy being brave in a military psychiatrist’s office, a dying woman enjoying a last waltz with her ex-husband — are rich in atmosphere yet modest. When a deranged young man tearfully explains why he thinks a coffin makes the perfect gift for his mama, it’s the kind of loopy, wrenching moment that will doubtless win somebody a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination should any producer be enterprising enough to throw out three quarters of Beach Music and make the rest into a movie. That’s worth waiting for, especially since it’ll cost you less than the book. Isn’t $27.50 more family misery than most of us can afford? C-