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Friday, April 29, 2011

Beach Music

That Pat Conroy is not the most prolific writer in the world is an understatement.  Longtime Conroy fans have grown accustomed to the several-year wait between his novels, and for them the publication of a new Pat Conroy novel is a big deal.  I am one of those longtime Conroy fans myself but, for some unexplainable reason, I left Beach Music on the shelf for close to sixteen years before finally reading it this month.  Perhaps it was just comforting to know that I had a “new” Pat Conroy novel waiting for me anytime I was ready for it.  That is the closest I can come to explaining my decade-and-a-half wait.

Beach Music was worth that long wait. 

Even casual fans of Conroy’s writing would recognize this 1995 book as a Pat Conroy novel.  It focuses on another large, dysfunctional Southern family filled with over-the-top siblings and eccentric parents; the narrator’s high school friends are a uniquely memorable bunch (this time one of them is running for governor of South Carolina, one is a successful Hollywood producer, another is a writer, and one is a Catholic monk); and the book is as much about coastal South Carolina as it is about the people that live there.

Jack McCall and his friends came of age as university students when they and other South Carolina students could no longer ignore what was happening in Viet Nam - but the war that made them grow up nearly destroyed them in the process.  Some relationships were ruined forever and others were salvaged only after the smoke finally cleared.  Now those relationships seem to be coming full-circle as Jack McCall and his old friends are forced to relive the terrible days of protest, betrayal, and death they experienced two decades earlier.

After his wife jumped to her death from a Charleston bridge, Jack, a writer of cookbooks and travel guides, took his toddler daughter Leah to Rome in hopes of starting a new life for them there.  During the several years they have been in Rome, Jack has cut off all contact with those he left behind in South Carolina, and Leah’s Southern heritage is acknowledged only through the tales and legends Jack uses as bedtime stories.  But now Jack receives the only news that could force him to go home: his mother is dying of cancer and she wants to see him.

Ready or not, Jack is suddenly thrust back into the arms of his family and friends, many of whom are thevery people that helped drive him away a decade earlier.  He is almost overwhelmed by his larger-thanlife brothers (one of whom is a mental patient), his alcoholic, former judge of a father, and his dying mother – and, he has to face his wife’s parents, whom he has not seen since they tried to take Leah away from him following their daughter’s suicide.  If that were not enough, politician Capers Middleton and Hollywood producer Mike Hess, two of Jack’s closest childhood friends, are forcing him to relive the Viet Nam era events that emotionally crippled everyone in their small circle.

Beach Music is pure Pat Conroy.  It is another passionate, larger than life, love story filled with memorable characters and side-stories that immerse the reader in a part of the country that Conroy so deeply loves.  Pat Conroy is a Southern writer and he is proud of it.  His is the generation most impacted, and most scarred, by the Viet Nam War and, in Beach Music, Conroy brings to vivid life the era that so terribly changed this country forever.

Rated at: 5.0 

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