Recently I completed the first title on my Southern Literature challenge: The Prince of Tides: A Novel, by Pat Conroy. It’s a wide-ranging story about a brother and sister grappling with the wreckage of their childhood, written in a distinctively lyrical voice, with an eye trained on vivid images and piercing insights.
Former high school football coach Tom Wingo has come north from his native South Carolina and arrived in New York City, desperate to aid his sister Savanna, who is in suicidal crisis and under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein. In the midst of Lowenstein and Tom’s conversations, they see that Tom is in a crisis of his own, with deep roots in the tragic childhood he shares with his sister, and which neither has survived intact. As Lowenstein and Tom grow closer, Tom shares parts of his life and memories that he never has before, and must deal with the repercussions.
If you’re looking for a archetypal contemporary Southern novelist, I think you would be well served by Conroy, whose work seems tailor-made to answer what makes Southern literature Southern. Family, community, religion are all major dominating influences in the novel, which is teeming with rich, vivid larger-than-life characters and laden with a wealth of figurative language. Too laden? At times, yes; if I were Conroy’s English teacher, I might have restricted his use of adverbs and adjectives and admonished him to remember to kill his darlings. But what would the book have lost, and would the authorial voice be quite as memorable? I don’t think so, and the questions these characters face on how to navigate through the wreckage of treacherous families are faced with bravery and panache, in the classic Southern style. Tom Wingo himself is probably the best-drawn character, and definitely a memorable addition to the gallery of legendary flawed Southern heroes.
When it was first published, reviews were mixed, and I confess I share some of this ambivalence. I certainly want to read more of Conroy’s work, and have put several of his other novels on my wishlist. I even want to see the film, which by some reports successfully remedies some of the novel’s heavier touch and excesses; though Streisand is certainly not the dark and elegant Lowenstein I had been picturing, I bet Nick Nolte is perfect. I think Conroy is a more talented writer than one of my other Southern favorites, Anne Rivers Siddons, although they have often blurbed each other’s novels and I still have a great affection for Siddons’ work, as repetitive as it has become recently. But is he as talented as he could be? I think some restraint, some more attention to grounding himself and his characters more firmly, might have made this book even better.
I guess what I’m trying to convey, through my ambivalence, is that while I am planning to read more of Conroy’s books, I wouldn’t say I’ve found a new favorite author. But if you’re interested in modern Southern literature, especially a tragic, funny, brave and flawed Southern hero, your time would be well spent with Tom Wingo and The Prince of Tides.
- Pat Conroy’s Favorite Southern Novels (thedailybeast.com)
- Pat Conroy’s latest explores his love affair with reading (charlestoncitypaper.com)