I've always been an unabashed fan of Pat Conroy, whose lavishly purpled prose brought the rivers and salt marshes of South Carolina's low country to life in The Prince of Tides. More than 20 years after its 1986 publication, I still pick that novel up and lose myself in its languid Southernness. I was not nearly as enamored of Conroy's next novel, Beach Music, and I'm sad to report that I like his new work, South of Broad, not at all: It comes off as little more than a pale reworking of Prince of Tides.
The books which each tell the story of a sensitive, troubled South Carolina man have so many similarities that I actually confused them at times. Here's Tom Wingo, the main character in Tides: ''My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call. ... I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the lowcountry, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders.'' And this is Leopold Bloom King of South of Broad: ''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.'' Though the books' plots differ, Tom and Leo face many of the same obstacles: the death of a beloved older brother, the taint of mental illness, oddball parents, the legacy of racism.
Writers write what they know, and there's no crime in Conroy's revisiting his major themes. And I wouldn't expect him to set a novel anywhere but South Carolina. After all, few contemporary writers are as indelibly linked with a place as he is. But Tides' over-the-top cadences worked; the book brought to mind a true Southern coquette, flashy and sweet and alluring all at the same time. Despite being 567 pages long, it soared. In contrast, South of Broad is weighed down by its floridity, like Charleston itself on an oppressively humid day. C