Friday, March 11, 2011

The Southern Mystique

I was way too young when I read my first Pat Conroy books.  Not too young for the sex or violence or disturbing images or messed up families with which his books abound, but too young to get the dialog.

When I read The Prince of Tides in high school, and later Beach Music in college, I remember not quite getting the tone.   I remember being confused about whether certain parts were lighthearted, being surprised by the emotional transitions--I would think two people were flirting, and then they'd suddenly start screaming and I realized they had been arguing.  Someone would say something funny and someone else would start crying.  What was I missing?

The truth was, I was just too young to realize that it wasn't me missing anything; it's the dialog.  Conroy's characters are always saying witty and charming things, no matter who they're talking to or what they're talking about.  The difference between affectionate teasing and cruel, cutting remarks is entirely nonexistent.  Conversations are often fast back-and-forth events with little description between the exchanges, giving you inadequate context to draw your own conclusions.

I'm complaining again, and I'm sorry about that because I really loved those books, and I'm really enjoying South of Broad, which I'm reading now.  But it's almost a relief to realize that the problem I've always had here is a flaw in the writing.  I think I'm as mature as I'm ever going to get (God help us all), and I understand a little bit more about the bitterly polite conversation, the affectionate ribbing that contains cruel truth, the frank discussion of painful topics that somehow doesn't offend.  And I think I can say with some conviction that it's not me, it's him.

Except.  Except that he's got this trump card that I can never be fully sure he's not playing.  He can always tell me that it's the Southern way, that the old-fashioned deep South of the '60s that he's describing is a place where conversations with strangers go from polite to cruel to laughter in seconds.  He can convince me that well-bred people say "I know you are but what am I?" at the top of their lungs at polite luncheons and no one blinks at them, because that's How It Is Here.  I can't counter that argument, and maybe he's right. 

I still find it confusing though, because I honestly can't tell when his characters are flirting and when they're fighting.  It's a little exhausting.

But I am really enjoying the book.  I like the main character a great deal--Leo King, whose mother named him after a character from Joyce's Ulysses, whose brother killed himself, whose adolescence was spent in mental hospitals, whose high school career was marred by a criminal record, who is unpopular and unsuccessful at high school, and yet who has more poise and self-command and self-awareness than anyone else in his world. 

Clearly this is a Summer Where Things Are Happening to Leo, who's introduced to three sets of brother and sister siblings in the same day, and whose paper route is lovingly, lavishly described in baroque detail in the first 25 pages of the book.  And while I'm not sure what's going on emotionally with any of these characters yet, I'm willing to stick around and find out.

Conroy writes over and over again about the same themes, motifs, images.  He writes about football, desegregation, psychiatry, twins, food, rivers.  If there isn't an albino animal in this book, I'll be really surprised.  Mostly he writes about characters who passionately love and violently hate the same people at the same time, often their parents.  I think this is why I can never tell from moment to moment whether Leo is trying to hurt his mother with his cutting remarks or cheer her up with his jokes.  I think the answer is always both.

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