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Swept Away!

 

I was recently asked if there was a single book that most impacted me as a writer. I didn’t hesitate in answering, “Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.” I so admired Conroy’s The Boo when it debuted in 1970 that I devoured all his subsequent works, but none prepared me for The Prince of Tides. Like millions of other readers, I was enthralled and why not? The very first line was irresistible: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”  Conroy was crying “All aboard!” and I couldn’t wait for the ride.

The story involves a picaresque, sublimely dysfunctional Carolina clan and more than once veers with infinite grace from prose to poetry that left me breathless.  Consider his white dolphin. “Rising, she hung suspended, concolorous with peaches and high risen moons.” Conroy boosts the fanciful imagery further with “quicksilver moments of my childhood I cannot recapture entirely.” Shoring up his story are a stunning vocabulary, command of the language and ability to evoke mesmeric imagery. It’s a triple play scored at full tilt.

Conroy has been called the quintessential Southern writer, something evident in his deft sense of time and place – South Carolina’s Low Country from World War II to the early ’80s. Having spent much time in Charleston and on the Isle of Palms, I know the area well and I’ve never read such a scrupulous evocation of the sights, sounds and smells of a haunting, strangely primeval terrain more water than land. Prince of Tides made me feel the August sand burn my bare feet and hear sea gulls trailing a shrimp boat back into port. It made me sweat. It gave me dreams and nightmares. It sang.

Conroy’s appeal is universal, but, as a Tennessean his age, I found that our regional roots made things more vivid, immediate and intimate. At times I was so consumed by his work that it transcended reading and became a sharing of confidences as we walked down some nameless Southern beach wavy with heat and heavy with torpor. I dreaded the moment when Conroy would say good-bye and vanish behind a shimmering sand dune because it meant I’d finished the book. I wanted to linger over bourbons and watch the sun slip into the marshes, but of course he knew when to leave the party.

I’ve reread this masterwork several times and find those charming, troubled Wingo kids as captivating as when I first met them twenty-six years ago.  When my twelfth novel set in the South, Creole Son, went to press, Conroy’s words continued to hover and inspire. They lifted me toward something higher and better because they held the key to finding beauty in despair and showed how to not merely survive but thrive and endure. There’s no better way to explain why The Prince of Tides remains such a benchmark in my personal and professional life than to quote Conroy himself.  “I take it as an article of faith,” he wrote, “that the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever.”

Amen, brother.

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Celeste Berteau
    Feb 15, 2014

    I feel the same way about him. Love his early memoir, The Water is Wide, too.Very nice guy as well. I’ve met him a couple of times at Garden District Books.

  2. Scott
    Feb 15, 2014

    The gushing brissance of your review of Conroy’s work makes me want to read it, as well as yours! Finding beauty in despair is certainly worthy of well crafted circumspection. Your vocabulary is always impressive. See above! 😉

  3. Liz
    Feb 17, 2014

    Thanks for this wonderful commentary, Michael. Your own eloquence conveys the beauty of Conroy’s work and does what all good reviewers hope to do: compel readers to read the book!

  4. vicki bucy
    Apr 20, 2014

    Michael, I love your use of words and your sweeping comments. You are correct that Pat Conroy has ” a stunning vocabulary, command of the language and ability to evoke mesmeric imagery.” He is the quintessential southern writer. I love Prince of Tides more than any of his other books.

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