Friday, September 11, 2009

Thinking of Hugo--and Pat

I will admit that when I first moved to Western North Carolina, I thought people in the area overreacted to hurricane warnings. Didn't they have a map, I wondered? Then I kept hearing tales of Hurricane Hugo, the storm that roared this far inland twenty years ago this week. One of my colleagues had a son seriously injured when the storm damaged their home. I heard enough tales, eventually, that I began to understand the seriousness.

Having grown up in Alabama's tornado alley, I understood storms. My townspeople were the ones always interviewed on national news. ("It sounded like a freight train comin' toward the trailor park. Me and the wife and kids was all hunkered down in the bathtub....") Hurricanes were outside of my field of expertise or even experience.

Last week I finished Pat Conroy's novel South of Broad, his first novel in about fourteen years. I am drawn to his books the way folks are drawn to crime scenes and train wrecks. His writing is wordy and boisterous; his protagonists all appear to be Conroy himself to some degree. Love his writing or not, you can't call the man's novels boring. The number-one all-time unforgettable scene in his Prince of Tides involves a man-eating tiger and an assault on criminals with a statue of the Christ child.

This new novel, set in his beloved Charleston with a side trip to San Francisco, brings together a motley band of unlikely high school friends who first met on Bloom's Day. The characters deal with AIDS, wacko killers, alcoholic parents, racism, the good, bad and ugly of Catholicism, suicide, and adultery. I have also come to look forward to the one requisite Conroy chapter focusing on "the big game"--this time a high school football championship game. All of his novels that I can recall have one such narrative that could be read as a stand-alone short story, a tale of racism and stereotyping conquered, of dignity in defeat, of victory against the odds.

South of Broad is pure Conroy--a little over the top, bigger than life, then when you think life can't get more complicated, Hurricane Hugo blows into town.


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