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Thursday, November 19, 2015


air bellows drive-thru art museum
Reading in Pat Conroy's novel published in 2009, South of Broad, takes me back to the place I once lived from 1964 to 1976, Charleston, SC. They were the years of my education at the College of Charleston and working in bookstores, knowing people, a regular at cocktail parties, friends who are still friends today, two having left the body recently. The time was the last years of the Old South Charleston and the first years of the New South Charleston. The New South arrived in the middle of my time there. Charleston  now is a city entirely different from the Charleston I knew. I can't say I prefer one to the other. Each has its own character. I liked the casual, slow way of the Old South. I liked about Old South Charleston the working class, middle class and ruling class all lived around the corner from each other. Little neighborhood stores sprinkled around the peninsula on the order of country stores sprinkled around the county in the Blue Ridge.  
South of Broad is my first Conroy novel. Broad St in Charleston runs an east to west line across the peninsula, below which the white well-to-do live, above which everybody else lives. In Old South Charleston it was fashionable to let the houses go without fresh paint. It was also fashion among men in suits not to have polished shoes. It was about 1970 when the fashion switched to freshly painted houses, painted by Vietnamese refugees who did good work for good pay, and men in suits began wearing polished shoes. Charleston went from weary, worn out and left out to a gem of a city which may be the most beautiful city in the country. Last time I visited, it was magnificent. The city has become a theme park of itself. Rich outsiders buy expensive south of Broad property and expect to be swept into Charleston society. They learn a good lesson in the trickery of expectations.
Conroy's story in South of Broad began in the middle of my time there, the year I graduated from C of C. I know the streets that come up in the course of the story, the houses, the businesses, the law offices, the Coast Guard station, the bridges, the culture, the black and white tension. I don't know more than a handful of people there now and they've probably forgotten me. I committed to the mountains absolutely, without looking back. It was a chopping block change. Someone I only slightly knew said before I left I'd be back in January. The only thing I could say to that was, You don't know me. It's fun, forty years after, looking back at the city I loved passing through. I don't think I could have lived out my life there with much satisfaction. I needed the hills. I had a kind of unconscious longing for the mountains, more for the abstraction than for the actuality, which I learned as time went by.
Conroy's story is very much Charleston. He has a cross-section of the city's population in his characters, close friends in a group, facets that reflect the various aspects of the gem that the city is. Conroy's analysis of the city is experienced. The way he writes about the people in his story tells me he pays attention to the people around him. He has learned human nature well. He's good at writing conversations. I'm appreciating Conroy as a writer more with every sitting. I'm two-thirds through it, having a hard time putting it down every time I pick it up. It's a good story well told. I'm glad he wrote a Charleston novel. I don't know anything about the world of books and writers anymore. Earlier this evening, I watched the 1983 movie made from his early novel, The Lords Of Discipline. It told life at the Citadel, the military academy in Charleston, where Conroy went to school. I had no idea it was so horrid. Never thought about it. Both the movie about American militarism and the novel, South of Broad, of particularly Charleston eccentrics, have affirmed what I've heard about Conroy's writing, that he's good at what he does. He tells a good story.  
air bellows dirve-thru art museum
photos by tj worthington

1 comment:

  1. Be sure to read My Reading Life and his cookbook. I enjoyed those, too. His writing is always about his life. I love it when he writes about Atlanta, because I recognize places and people and times as you recognize Charleston. Enjoy!