South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Conroy serves his southern comfort straight up – smooth and sweet at first, hard and strong going down, followed by a bitter aftertaste. Before you know it, you’re hooked and want more. Skip the prologue and get into the story – the descriptions of Charleston and the lowland tides will appear again later in the book, when you will appreciate them more as a relief to the drama.

If you are Roman Catholic, you will identify with the sarcastic sacrilegious comments and attention to rituals, as Leopold Bloom (King) – named after Joyce’s protaganist in Ulysses – follows his life journey.   Trying to be good – Leo never quite gets it right at first.   After his brother commits suicide at a young age, Leo goes a little crazy, takes the rap for a drug bust for a football star who never gives him a second thought, and connects with an unlikely group of anti-heroes who become his friends through life.

The line-up includes: Sheba and Trevor, twin products of an alcoholic mother and abusive and sociopathic father; Niles and Starla, never quite saved from a childhood from the wrong side of the tracks; Chad, Fraser, and Molly, entitled wealthy brats of the Old South, and Ike – token Black who makes it good – eventually as police chief in an all-white Southern bastion.    None have the approval of Leo’s mother – the ex-nun – now principal of the high school – who got dispensation from the Pope to marry Leo’s father, the saint.

The story starts slowly, but Conroy knows how to keep you turning pages.  Just as you are lulled into a soporific stupor from the descriptions of lovely southern Charleston, he zaps you with trauma – and you need to know what happens next.   The story follows Leo and his crowd into adulthood, with some surprising – some predictable – liaisons and career moves. The drama sometimes becomes overwhelming – the characters cry – you will cry.

When Conroy pulls you back in time to give you the childhood stories that formed the characters, you are ready to put the book away on a shelf. Then, abruptly, you are in it again – with a villain – murder – hurricane Hugo – you hold your breath as you turn pages – thinking – what else? Is this book going to be as long as Ulysses (although a lot better)? Maybe you should have a drink.

The circle completes – the real villain is uncovered – all is revealed.    June 16th takes on a new meaning.    You can breathe again.