I read Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides a year or two ago, since it was a rather famous title (although I think that is due to the influence of the book and the movie combined), and I mostly liked it. Some things I felt were probably just a matter of the time differences since it was written in the '80s. However as bizarre and over the top as some of Conroy's story lines seemed, I felt like it all worked within its context, and the story stayed with me. Then again, I think any novel that involves a circus tiger killing a seal is going to leave a mark.
I liked The Prince of Tides enough to want to read more by Conroy but also wasn't in a hurry to follow up on that since parts of it did seem so, well, crazy. South of Broad is a more recent novel of Conroy's and as a result, it may not have been the smartest pick. The book is incredibly readable, and there are definitely parts where the language just sweeps the reader along. However, it also showcases the flaws much more, packing just a few too random many instances and occurrences into these characters' lives. My main problem, however, was with the character description of the main character Leopold Bloom King vs. his actions, and the dialogue which just seemed fake. I think I would have been much more willing to accept melodrama if the dialogue had rang true at all.
The novel is broken up into five parts. The first takes place in the summer of 1969 when Leo meets all the people that will forever change his life and be his friends. There are various new students at the school, and as the principal's son, he is tasked to take them under his wing but also keep them at a distance since his strict mom recognizes that some of these kids have issues. In fact, Leo even states towards the beginning if he had known the future, he never would have followed his mom's orders and met the orphans, the twins, and the expelled rich kids (this made me expect some epic betrayal or The Secret History type of craziness, but that wasn't the case). The second part flashes forward to the novel's present day, 20 years later, when Sheba, one of the twins and academy award winning actress comes back to town to ask for a favor, which takes the gang to San Francisco during part III. The fourth part flashes back to their senior year and shows how their friendships developed, only to return to "present" day Charleston and the final fall out and drama.
The novel is narrated by Leo King, and his circle of friends consists of the orphans, Starla and Neil; the twins, the glamorous Sheba and her gay brother Trevor; the expelled rich kids, Molly and Chad, as well as Betty, another orphan, Chad's sister and Ike, the black football coach's son, because it's time for the school to integrate, and Leo is super accepting of everyone, rich, poor, gay, straight, black, white. Basically every social issue one can imagine affects the lives of these students, and they are all always on the right side of history. It's nice to have such progressive characters but seems unrealistic how easily everyone just seemed to fit in with each other. The orphans, who have run away several times in the pas, and have been through a series of orphanages, suddenly easily find their place in the new school, and everyone here, despite whatever background they may have, has practically no problem overcoming prejudices about race, class and sexual orientation. I think I could have overlooked all that but the dialogue was too stilted. One on the hand, the novel claims that this group of people have been best friends for twenty years, and yet their conversations feel like exposition. Shouldn't they already know these things about each other? Shouldn't Neil and his wife have already discussed how they feel about the idea of roots, the past and family in the twenty years they've been together rather than here? Every thing is over the top. At one point, 18 year old Leo refers to Neil as "son." Seriously? You are the same age. Who talks like that? This wasn't a case of precocious teens but was just a matter of unrealistic dialogue that felt stilted and staged more than anything else.
Leo is in love with all the female characters at one point or another or simultaneously, and even though he describes himself as ugly and a bit of an outsider due to his time in the mental hospital and his drug conviction, he is also on the football team and basically sets himself up as a leader and important voice of reason within the school. It just didn't pass the common sense test for me.
Overall, the novel was crazy, the characters were irritating and irrational, and yet I could imagine worse novels to read. Despite all its flaws, there is still something slightly gripping about the narrative, even if it is just a matter of wanting to see how this train wreck is going to proceed, and what other completely off the wall plot line is going to be added to the story.