After South of Broad

I've finished reading it. Pat Conroy's latest - South of Broad. It's vintage Pat Conroy in one way (the achingly beautiful prose, invoking place and scent and the way the air in the south near the coast feels on your skin right before the sun rises in the morning) ... but when I closed the book, I actually said to myself, "Yeah ... but ..."

The conclusion is right. True. Real. But there is a closing scene with a secret villain, and it left me deeply dissatisfied. That guy would not have talked like that. He just wouldn't have. I've known that guy in real life - that guy doesn't say, "You can't touch me because I am about to die." That guy says, "No one will believe you," and "What would be the point of revenge," and "You'll hurt more people than I ever did if you go public with this after I'm gone." That guy does not say, "Oh, well - I'm outa here anyway."

Aside from that disturbingly dissatisfying scene, Conroy did what he set out to do. He wrote, at last, about a kind father. Conroy's own father has died - and now Conroy's novels need not contain a leading man who fathers children only for the purposes of his own cruelty. (That guy's been relegated to the sidelines. Notably, he didn't go away.)

This book has me thinking about an author's own true voice - a topic at the front of my mind since this past spring's Creative Nonfiction Seminar. I have been thinking about true voice and learned voice - almost as if it's the difference between real conversation and cocktail-party conversation or standing-in-line-at-the-store conversation or even family-reunion conversation. South of Broad is not the same kind of conversation Conroy usually has with his reader.

Usually, Conroy's novels feel like shockingly honest conversation at a table near the back, where the lighting isn't very good, and the speaker has had enough beer for relaxation and not so much that the edge of clarity is gone. Half hidden in the shadowy borders of the room, with a highly accomplished and attentive waiter we never see or hear, Conroy leans back and lets his words flow over his listener, and the listener forgets his own plate and with only an occasional sip from his own glass, the listener listens - completely - absorbed - enclosed by the story. Usually, that's a Conroy novel.

He tried to tell South of Broad in the light of day at the park. He's not used to talking like that. The end of the novel (and a few other scenes) sounds like what happens when the teller of a story realizes someone is eavesdropping - the intensity drops out - all at once - the speaker seems to suspect that the story sound ludicrous in the ears of strangers in the middle of the morning in the park.

This past spring - for a few fleeting moments - I told a story with my own voice, a story written for a Creative Nonfiction assignment - a story that surprised me with the way it bubbled and popped and sang. It's hard for me to talk like that - to be that naked and honest. I can see why Conroy's stories are told from a table in the back of the room where no one can see his face. And my own intensely sad stories (we all have them) sound as absurd and adolescent as tales told in the weird illumination of a flashlight, under the covers or inside a tent - a tent set up in your parents' back yard, just in case anyone needs to go to the bathroom. I'm no Pat Conroy, that's for sure. I have to learn to tell my stories where people can see my face.


A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Thomas Mann

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