Today I Learn… I make a point of learning something new everyday. This is what I learn each day

1, Mar 3, 2016

Preconception and expectations: How I Read Pat Conroy’s 2009 novel South of Broad

Filed under: Book — admin @ 11:09 pm

Preconception can channel one’s expectations. It can also narrow one’s vision. This is how I experienced when I was reading Pat Conroy’s 2009 novel South of Broad.

Before opening South of Broad, I knew that Pat Conroy writes in the tradition of southern literature. Hence, I expected the Faulkner ingredients in Conroy’s book, unearthly death, suicide of the best and the smartest one, promiscuity, incest, mental illness, unspeakable deviance, and the hollow aristocratic pride and prejudice of a dying world with undying people. It turns out Conroy’s book has all of them and much more. Wasn’t I right!

“… a priest appears in the room with his arm around the throat of a struggling, naked boy. The boy is beautiful and blond; the priest is handsome, virile, and strong. The boy tries to scream, but the priest stops him with a hand around his mouth. The boy struggles, but he is overpowered and raped by the priest, and raped brutally,…”

That rape leads to Steve’s suicide. Leo King, the protagonist and Steve’s younger brother, and his family “suffered a collective nervous breakdown” after they buried the boy. Another person, Leo’s father, dearest to Leo, died when Leo was 18 years old.

The twin, Sheba and Trevor Poe, were sexually abused as children by their father who, “started out as a run-of-the-mill pedophile; …had a bad habit of eating his own feces.” In the end, this is what the father did to Sheba, “…unrecognizable if you didn’t know her, lies the hideous, mangled corpse of the radiantly beautiful American actress Sheba Poe. She has stab wounds all over, even to her face and both eyes…”

Leo married Starla Whitehead, who suffers “borderline personality disorder” and also commits suicide. At the end of the book, events happened to Leo and to his loved ones turn into a “galvanic nightmare,” so much as that Leo’s life falls apart. He caves in to the black hole of depression, becoming suicidal himself. He has to check into a psychiatric ward to regain his sanity.

This is how my preconception of southern literature leads me to read out of Conroy’s South of Broad novel and how I remember the book.

For the record, I picked up this book because a colleague of mine recommended the author. Of course, after my reading, I went back to my colleague with this question, “What is it that you like this author so much?” She mentioned the heart-warming friendship of the group of middle aged folks when they flew out to San Francisco to look for one of their high school buddies–Trevor.

This is how the story goes. About 20 years after their high school graduation, Sheba, now a famous movie actress came back to Charleston, asking her high school friends to help find her twin brother, Trevor, whom she believes is dying of AIDS. Leo, Frazer, Molly, Niles, Ike, Betty, together with Sheba all went with her to San Francisco. They were there for about two weeks before they located and brought back their friend.

I was not impressed by this part at first. I tried to disqualify this as being too far-fetched. Partly because I was expecting deviant elements to live up to my self-fulfilling prophecy in south literature; partly because I was truly not familiar with the close-knit, inter-related small town life like Charleston.

I was reminded that such friendship was possible in small towns where people grow up together, play in the same high school football team; go to the same local college, and back to work in the same town. In this book, they become further inter-related through marriage, Niles marries Frazer, Chad’s sister; Leo marries Starla, Niles’ sister. Molly becomes part of the clan through marriage with Chad. Sheba and Trevor are friends to all of them.

No doubt that I was initially restricted by my own preconceptions and experience. That is, I didn’t grow up in a small community like this. Still, I cannot tell if the novel is a fictional rendition of the author’s overall cheerful sentiment about human society or realistic depiction of a small southern town life.

It’s been a few weeks since I returned the book to our local library. The characters and the tragic events are still vivid in my mind. The paradox that challenged me has remained unresolved. I cannot shake off the irony posed in the book about traditional society. That is, a close-knit community that has retained many traditional values and features is supposed to reach out to everyone and provide more channels of social, emotional and psychological support than modern society does, be it in the form of church or family or friends, so that people would not resort to suicide.

The irony in the book is, in the end, none of them works for Leo King, just as none of them ever works for his brother Steve who succeeds in taking his own life. When all else fails and when Leo became “the most suicidal client who has ever walked into her (Dr.) office,” he has to be saved by modern medicine and was signed into the psychiatric ward of the Medical University Hospital of South Carolina, a modern and rather dehumanized institution to a traditional society.

When I discussed this paradox with my colleague, I was reminded of the fact that in many small communities like the one in the book, people are trapped in this fa├žade of their moralistic upbringing. They are nice and polite to each other, but they choose not to share with each other their dirty linen. They are more concerned with preserving the surface of their little perfect life than being psychologically healthy. I must admit that I have tread into an area that I am not familiar with.

No doubt this is another thought-provoking novel that I have read this year.

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