In Pat Conroy’s first novel in 14 years a group of friends comes together as high-schoolers in the late 1960s and they change each others’ lives. Our guide through this ode to friendship is Leopold Bloom King, second son in every sense to a mother who is not only the principal at his high school, but a former nun and an expert on James Joyce. Conroy uses her as a deus ex Ulysses to manipulate her son into meeting, in a 24 hour stretch, the eight friends who form the core of the tale. That day is, of course, June 16, Bloomsday. You know there will be a character named Molly. Leo’s mother named his golden boy older brother Stephen in honor of you know who. Sadly, Stephen offers the spark that sets light to the rest of the novel, by committing suicide. Leo found his body at a tender age, the trauma of which caused him a breakdown and an extended time out in a mental institution. Later, Leo takes the fall for a drug crime not of his doing, suffering in silence because he admired a school athlete who reminds him so much of Stephen. Leo continues to act in a saint-like and not very credible manner. As an adult Leo is on the Penelope end of a wandering spouse problem. This Bloom could definitely use a Bialystock.
There are mysteries to be solved, significant dangers to be dealt with, lessons to be learned and lives to be led in this mass coming-of-age tale. A central character in the story is Charlestown, South Carolina, the location of the title street. Conroy lets loose with florid and not unwelcome sentimentality about his core fictional location. There is nothing wrong with loving your home. There are plenty of warts in Conroy's South. Bigotry abounds in this place where the Civil War heard its first shot. No shock there. Racism and class rigidity are not tucked away behind the magnolias. More surprising is the degree of acceptance across the friends who form Conroy’s breakfast, lunch and dinner club.
The group seems selected for family dysfunction. This runs the gamut from an unloving mother to a psycho-killer father, spiced up with a bit of murder, alcoholism, and sexual deviance. This wide spectrum of adolescence includes a several sets of siblings—a siren about to become a queen of the silver screen and her flamboyantly fabulous brother, brother and sister orphans who are chained to a bed when we first meet them, a spoiled rich boy and his athletic sister—and the first black to integrate the local high school. All have interesting stories, which are revealed in time, taking us from the 1960s into the 1980s when the group comes together to save one of their own, a sort of Big Chill in which the Kevin Costner character is still kicking.
There is much to enjoy here. Connections to Joyce, commentary on religion, Catholicism in particular, much more on the power of friendship, a feel for the culture of a particular time in a particular place, some beautiful descriptive passages, some engaging scenes in which one can, at times feel along with the characters.
So why did I not like this book? The dialogue was snappy, witty, and seemed to all be emanating from a single voice, the author’s. The lines that come from character A could just as easily have come from characters B, C, D or E. Black, white, male, female, gay or straight, there was too little differentiation in the sound and feel of each of Conroy’s people. This is not an absolute, of course. The geezer does not sound like the football coach, who does not sound like Leo’s mother. But the friends were too much of a cloth. Also, the voice that emanates from those too-similar mouths was almost unrelentingly peppy. Snappy dialogue, witty, cheery, upbeat. It reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s YA novels (I hope they were YA) from the 50s and 60s in which all the clean-cut youths slapped on their spacesuits, sidearms and smiles as they marched forth to kick-butt on some bad-ass aliens, exchanging wisecracks 24/7. (Yes there is a monster to be slain here.) Puh-lease. It is tough to feel much connection to such plasticine portrayals. And enough with the tears, already. Do southern males really soak each others shirts with such lachrymosity?
I know that there are many who will love this book. And I recognize that maybe there are elements I missed. There had to be a lot of Ulysses references, for example, that left contrails high above as they zoomed past me. But even with missed references, the uni-character problem really grated.