'Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in," says the farmer in Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man." That's the main theme of Pat Conroy's new novel, and the proof that it's true is in the publication of this uneven book.
His last novel, "Beach Music," came out in 1995. Since then, he's published only "The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life" and "My Losing Season," a memoir about playing point guard at The Citadel.
But he remains a literary lion at 63, and any novel he writes demands serious consideration. So "South of Broad," set like many of his books along the South Carolina coast, is his chance to prove he hasn't lost his gift for long-form fiction.
The strongest parts of it do prove that. His enjoyably florid language, sound knowledge of Southern class structure and ability to depict the battered but unbroken soul of a damaged boy all remain intact. (The title refers to the wealthy citizens who live in mansions south of Broad Street in Charleston. They are called "SOBs" there, usually in jest.)
Yet the story contains coincidences at which Charles Dickens would've balked and twists that lead to an ending too conveniently unreal in its allocation of joy and pain. The most daring character is an omniscient, child-molesting serial killer who can take on any profession without being detected and never looks the same; this fairy-tale ogre drops in and out, conveniently vanishing for 20 years.
Conroy re-explores themes from many of his other novels: the scarcely bridgeable gap between Southern blacks and whites in the 1960s ("The Water is Wide"), the failure of a hardworking, earnest child to satisfy an unreasonable parent ("The Great Santini"), the revelation of disgusting family secrets ("The Prince of Tides"), the effect of a suicide on those left behind ("Beach Music"). There's even a porpoise with symbolic, almost magical importance, as in "Tides," and it'll seem as enchanting or cloying to you here as it did there.
The story jumps back and forth between 1969 and 1989. The narrator, alternately a high school senior and a grown-up columnist for The Charleston Post and Courier, is Leopold Bloom King, whom we meet as he begins to recover from his elder brother's suicide. (References to James Joyce's "Ulysses" are inserted throughout.)
In 1969, Leo intervenes in the lives of new classmates. Two are angry siblings from North Carolina's mountains; two more are impossibly gorgeous, talented twins on the run from their serial-killer dad; another is a black athlete whose father has been hired to coach football at the barely integrated high school; three more are Charleston aristocracy, including smug lawyer-to-be Chadsworth Rutledge the Tenth.
In 1989, Leo tries to save the twins from their reawakened father and self-destructive lifestyles: The boy, a great pianist, has slept carelessly with dozens of men in San Francisco and disappeared after getting AIDS; the girl has become the most lusted-after movie star of her generation but is zooming toward a nervous breakdown.
Conroy can still write beautifully: "The West is both a great thirst and a dry, weatherless curiosity. In California, the mad, deep breath of deserts is never far away." Yet his editors permitted many clunkers like this one: "The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church would cover my soul like a condom for the rest of my life."
The supporting characters seem more real than Leo, who is unfailingly righteous, brave, kind, perceptive and patient. (I thought he might be intended as autobiography, but what author could be so egotistical?)
Leo's storytelling philosophy comes out in tales invented for friends' kids: "Together, we rout nighttime terrors... Though we always fight fair, our enemies always die... The bad guy always has to get it, and his death is slow and hard."
Conroy now shares that philosophy, as he enters the late stages of his career. Like many aging artists, he wants to convince himself and us that the world makes benign sense. (See any recent Clint Eastwood film.) This impulse has often been present but subdued in his books; in "South of Broad," he gives in to it fully.