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Pat Conroy overcomplicates the South

The Atlanta native trips up in South of Broad

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The title South of Broad, Pat Conroy's first novel in nearly 15 years, refers to the informal name given to a section of Charleston, S.C., almost exclusively inhabited for generations by the city's de facto aristocracy. Living south of Broad is a point of pride for Conroy's hero, Leopold Bloom King. Leo comes from truly common stock. His father is a science teacher; his mom a former nun. Leo, however, sees himself reflected in the neighborhood's gorgeous cityscape. The fact that he's also the ringleader of an audaciously diverse group of friends suggests a kind of redemption for this former seat of the Confederacy. It's a well-intentioned moral that could have been more affecting if South of Broad didn't fall apart at the end.

South of Broad begins with the suicide of Leo's older brother Stephen in the late ’60s. The 10-year-old's death nearly destroys Leo. His parents send him to a sanitarium where he experiences psychological horrors only a handful of people might ever understand. Leo manages to befriend other damaged psyches, though, and together they grow up, grow apart, and reunite in an attempt to save one of their own from a dark end. Most of the novel comprises episodes that illustrate and re-illustrate how people of such diverse backgrounds could become lifelong friends. And how friendships like theirs could withstand unfathomable acts of pure evil. Unfortunately, Conroy's band of brothers and sisters proves fairly cumbersome.

There's Ike: He becomes the city's first black police chief. The twins, Sheba and Trevor Poe: Sheba grows up to be a Hollywood bombshell, while Trevor, the group's lone gay, becomes a pianist. Betty, Niles and Starla are orphans. Betty, who's black, marries Ike. Starla goes insane and her brother Niles marries Fraser Rutledge, a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Fraser's brother, Chad, marries Molly, another south of Broad elite. Leo, meanwhile, marries Starla and grows up to be a gossip columnist for Charleston's daily newspaper.

The friends reference their differences incessantly and the exchanges often come across like canned sitcom dialogue: "'Sheba, ride in my squad car with me. Betty, you ride with that cream-puff white boy.' 'Not until I give this girl a hug,'" Betty says, turning toward Sheba. "'Hey Sheba, how's my favorite white bitch?'" As a result, both readers and characters rarely have a chance to deeply explore issues. The gang gets together often and gets drunk often. Come to think of it, that happens a lot in Charleston. Such superficiality and emotional distance, however, make the friendships and their implied values difficult to accept.

Sheba and Trevor's father is the face of evil in Conroy's imagined world. He beats his wife, rapes his children, murders indiscriminately and even eats his own feces. He's also a master of disguise who stalks Sheba all the way to Hollywood. He then tracks the whole gang to San Francisco where they've gone to save Trevor, who's living in a flophouse and dying of AIDS. Dad trails them back to Charleston and threatens to kill everyone. But this narrative thread ends with a whimper rather than a bang, perhaps because there's something even worse awaiting Leo than a cartoonish evil-doer. But this I won't discuss for fear of disappointing Conroy fans. I'll let him do that on his own.

South of Broad by Pat Conroy. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $29.95. 516 pp.

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