South of Broad is the last novel my friend, Pat Conroy, wrote. He gave me a copy long before he died, but I am just getting around to reading it. I’ve tried to be honest with myself about why I waited. More accurately, why I put it off.
I knew this would be the last time I would hear his masterful storytelling, overhear his quick wit, his description of the pathos of my South, unveil the dysfunction of family life. Family is a contact sport, Pat would opine…..and live.
Falling in love with Pat’s early writing, I had followed his career through many twists and turns. Conrack was a movie, turning Pat’s book The River Is Wide, into a cinematic journey to a low country out island and introduced me to his love of things low country. The Great Santini chronicled his troubled relationship with his fighter pilot father. I always seemed to have seen the movies before I read his books.
That was up until I met him. It was while he was writing Lords of Discipline, a book about his days at the Citadel, that I came to know Pat. A friend of mine had been his roommate in school and worried as to how he would be portrayed in the book. Pat and I schemed as to how to drive this button-downed executive to distraction with his anxiety. We brought our plot to a conclusion at a lunch at the old Fish Market at Lenox Square. Epic, just like one of Pat’s story lines.
I was a friend of Pat while he was writing Prince of Tides which meant we were frequenting Atlanta parties with his father as a wing man, the Great Santini. He proved to be one of the most charming people I have ever known, belying the abusive portrayal of the man by Robert Duvall. Truth was, Santini was both, combining light and shadow, as do most of us.
It was a heady time for me, running with some of the literary figures of Atlanta, serving as the Master of Ceremonies of the Townsend Award thanks to Jim’s widow who drafted me for the job. At the time, I was knee-deep into the novel by Anne Rivers Siddons who was exposing the drama of my home turf in Peachtree Road. I lifted several characters for sermonic illustrations as I remember. That crew of writers was a fun group to play with in the sandbox.
I lost touch with Pat as he moved to Fripp Island and then on to his final home, Beaufort. He seemed to have found some peace there, and was enjoying life with his wife, Cassandra, also a writer. I got word from a friend that he had cancer. It didn’t take long for that beast to take him down. Before he took his final trip across the River, he wrote some powerful reflections on reading and writing in his book My Reading Life. He penned a requiem for his father in Death of Santini, which was a no-holds-barred look at his family’s drama, and his love of them. But, I enjoyed his notes on cooking, a true love of his. His recount of a cooking class with famed Nathalie Dupree is worth the trip through the book. I have the audio version of his book, which he narrates. I love hearing his voice.
Reading South of Broad was like having him in the room with me. He has such a way of capturing the colloquial phrases, the comedic way in which Southerners regale and accost one another. He paints characters with a depth that makes me covet his superpowers, and his deft construction of plot leaves me shaking my head as he moves through the narrative. Always, there’s the whisper of darkness that pervades the Southern soul that O’Conner and Percy intimated to me in my early reading.
While I was barely into the text, I realized why I had avoided the book. I was feeling a deep grief. It was a heart-breaking grief that pains one with the realization that you will never see this person again. Pat was gone. This force of nature that I had come to enjoy his companionship had left this world. The reality of death was all too real as his voice, his presence had been curtailed. This last book was crazily my way of holding on to him. Rationally, I know I can reread all of Pat’s books but it’s not the same. The surprise, the twists, the phrases. So I held back
And now that I had entered the book, I felt it even more. It seemed as if Pat was with me, cohabiting my study. Once again, Pat was guilty of overwriting, a practice we talked about many times. Never to be accused of sparseness, Pat made football games into epic battles, full of comedy and tragedy, And his plots sometimes begged the question of reality. Finding a down-and-out street person on the trolley of San Francisco, who just happened to be the hero of a football game from the protagonist’s past, who also turns out to be a key component to the resolution of the plot is the kind of stuff that Pat would do. It’s a tendency in most of his novels, a habit that I can laugh at and forgive. It felt familiar when I found it throughout South of Broad, providing a romantic overtone to the way Pat saw things. But it feels familiar, and makes my departed friend seem closer than he is….which would be much to Pat’s liking.
South of Broad is a good story, well told, over-told perhaps, but worth the time. I am glad I unconsciously timed the moment to pick it up off my downstairs bookshelf. I did not know the significance of the date, June 16th, when I undertook this long delayed reading. Surprised by the coincidence, I paused and reflected on the magical moment once I awoke to the synchronicity at play. June 16th, Bloomsday, is a day celebrated by fans of James Joyce’s epic Ulysses, which revolves around Leo Bloom and one day in his life in Dublin. This day becomes the starting point for Pat’s story and weaves throughout the novel. It ends on the same day, June 16, 1990, with the hero, Leo, offering a view of human existence, “born to nakedness and tenderness and nightmare in the eggshell fragility of mortality and flesh.” Classic Conroy.
And the hero concludes with an observation that is incarnated throughout the plot:”the immense, unanswerable powers of fate, how one day can shift the course of ten thousand lives. Fate can catapult them into lives they were never meant to lead until they stumbled into that one immortal day.”
Of course, this fate is a double-edge sword, thrusting one into a positive trajectory unimagined or it can trip one up into an unrelenting fall that seems to never end.
I began my blog, South of God, with a series of musings around this very thought. What about the twists of fate that come to form our life stories? But what about the other side of the coin, the decisions we make in that wake of the force of fate that will define or deflect the effects of that twist?
I noted in my own narrative the consequence of a girl talking in the back of my home room, resulting in her being moved to sit beside me. Our conversations over the next year transformed my sense of self. Her blessing gave me wings.
Or the chance selection of a course my freshman year in college that forged the course of my study for eleven years.
How about the crazy decision to drag my tired ass to church on a Sunday morning, only to see a vision across the balcony from me, a person who would share my life?
And I can go on, as you, by now, know. That’s not to even begin to plough the field of fate, like when my mother went out on a blind date with my dad. It’s all there, filled with multiple choice options that twist the contours of our life, leaving us with the question of “What if?” and the affirmation, “Thank God.”.
While Pat’s point is to affirm the role of fate and to pronounce that anything can happen on Bloomsday. it is a much broader, South or not, interplay of fate and human agency in our everyday world. It was fate that led me to pick up Pat’s book on June 16th this year, a book that I had purposely avoided. But it is my decision to follow that rabbit down the hole into the Southern landscape of low country and Charleston. I could have tossed it in with the pile collecting by my desk. But, no. I decided to take it to my chair to read.
The grief I was hoping to avoid was waiting for me, not pulling the punch of pain. It was joined by the memories of others I have lost recently, boyhood friends, and the closing act of parents that were of the Greatest Generation. The grief I feel is correlated to the amount of love I had for each person who exits, stage left or right.
As my age advances, now bearing a freshly minted Medicare card this month, the quantity of my moments of grief will naturally increase. But my prayer is that the quality of my grieving may increase as well, as I embrace the reality of the gift of the relationships I have been fortunate to experience, the inevitable loss, as well as the concomitant love that I have been given and give.
Visiting my friend, Pat, on Bloomsday, reminded me of that. Anything can happen. Yes, anything.