Monday, December 21, 2015

My Reading Life: Beach Music (Conroy)

I am relishing the writings of Pat Conroy again. This gifted writer crafts beautiful sentences with expert metaphor and simile. And I have a fondness for reading him. When I read, I can hear his voice in my head . . . that slow, Southern, cultured articulation.  

My introduction to Pat Conroy was through my sister who had read most of his books at the time. My first Conroy years ago was The Water is Wide, which I loved. Being a teacher, Conroy's autobiographical teacher story was encouraging to go the extra mile, but the harsh truth of the way people who have the say-so in schools act was a good heads-up. After that, I moved into different reading spheres and didn't come back to Conroy until his My Reading Life was published. (I frankly cannot believe I've not written anything about my reading of this book-that-changed-me. I thought I had but will have to remedy that soon.)  

Earlier this year, I read My Losing Season rather reluctantly because I thought it would be all about his basketball life. The story, again autobiographical, is built around his basketball life at the Citadel, but it is so much more. After this, I still wanted to read his other books, but since they were obviously just fiction, I wasn't in any rush. Instead, I wanted to read some of the books he talked about in his My Reading Life that affected him. But when the Autumn Reading Challenge rolled around, I put Beach Music on my list. My sister said I would like it.  

And, yes, I did. I really liked it. A lot. In fact, it's one of those books that wander around with me like a shadow after finishing it. Why?  

I find great reward in appreciating his gift of composition. Conroy has a power of description, syntax, and vocabulary that all blend together for a most enjoyable experience. I once said that Conroy could write about paint drying and make it interesting. Here are two examples:

We surf-fished in the breakers catching spottail bass and flounder for dinner. I discovered that summer that I loved to cook and feed my friends, and I enjoyed the sound of their praise as they purred with pleasure at the meals I fixed over glowing iron and fire. I had the run of my grandparents’ garden and I would put ears of sweet corn in aluminum foil after washing them in seawater and slathering them with butter and salt and pepper. Beneath the stars we would eat the beefsteak tomatoes okra and the field peas flavored with salt pork and jalapeno peppers. I would walk through the disciplined rows that brimmed with purple eggplants and watermelons and cucumbers, gathering vegetables. My grandfather, Silas, told us that summer that low country earth was so fertile you could drop a dime into it and grow a money tree.

And this long one:   

In twenty feet of water, . . . the four of us watched the moonlight play on the surface of the water. It enclosed us in its laceries as we watched the moon spill across the Atlantic like wine from an overturned glass.

A porpoise sounded twenty yards away from us in an explosion of breath, startling us. . . . Then another porpoise broke the water and rolled toward us. A third and a fourth porpoise neared the board and we could feel great secret shapes eyeing us from below. I reached out to touch the back of one, its skin the color of jade, but as I reached the porpoise dove and my hand touched moonlight where the dorsal fin had been cutting through the silken waters. The dolphins had obviously smelled the flood tide of boyhood in the sea and heard the hormones singing in the boy-scented water. None of us spoke as the porpoises circled us. The visitation was something so rare and perfect that we knew by instinct not to speak – and then, as quickly as they had come, the porpoises moved away from us, moved south where there were fish to be hunted. 

Each of us would remember that night floating on the waves all during our lives. It was the year before we went to high school when we were poised on the slippery brink between childhood and adulthood, admiring our own daring as we floated free from the vigilance and approval of adult eyes, ruled only by the indifference of stars and fate. It was the purest moment of freedom and headlong exhilaration that I had ever felt. A wordless covenant was set among us the night of the porpoises.

I absolutely could smell, taste, and see that scrumptious-sounding food, and in the latter, the union of the "laceries" of the moonlight, the "silken waters," and the "wordless covenant . . . the night of the porpoises" is enchanting. 

One reason I am so glad to have read My Reading Life and My Losing Season is that in both of these books, Conroy reveals intimate details about his difficult upbringing. All that information in my memory gave perspective as I read Beach Music. Although fiction, it is apparent that Jack is Pat, Lucy is Peg, and "The Judge" is Donald. I'm sure there may be others, but these are obvious. Conroy writes about his real life disguised in his fictional characters. A good writer, I've always heard, writes about what he knows and where he is; Conroy does this, and many times it's not pretty, it is brutal and bitter. The language is coarse and crass from some characters, and it is who they are. Conroy wrote this during one of the lowest stretches of his life, one sabotaged by alcohol and depression. I don't know, but I wonder if this story was not his necessary cathartic.  While many would not find some of his stories worthwhile reading (I'm sure I could find something more profitable to read myself), I feel great privilege to be an audience of his wordsmithing art.   

Many of Conroy's books are long. This one was 628 pages. One reason for the length is the amount of background Conroy gives the reader. In Beach Music, you have the basic story involving a dozen or so characters, all either family or people the protagonist grew up with. And Conroy diverges at strategic points during the main story, usually years and many pages, to flashback on the life of a character. This background material provides a secure landscape to get the reader up-close-and-personal with the character to sufficiently understand his/her part in the story. Often this flashback involves twenty-five or thirty pages (thus the size of the books), but Conroy is magical with this technique, and the reader really "knows" the character as if they grew up together. And all this doesn't just add pages, these people are integral to the life of the story. I can understand now why so many readers of Beach Music re-read it again later -- there are so many stories embedded in stories.  

Conroy's power of description often reminds me of the marriage of a good hymn tune and its lyrics. As the lyrics speak of the glory of God, the majesty of heaven, or the resurrection of the dead, a good hymn tune is in a major key and ascending the scale. Each enhances the other. Conroy's word paintings do this too. Take, for example, these: 

[M]otherlessness caused one of the great thirsts of the human condition.

On its own, my spirit seemed to relax, like a folding chair let out by a pool.

No story is a straight line. The geometry of a human life is too imperfect and complex, too distorted by the laughter of time and the bewildering intricacies of fate to admit the straight line into its system of laws.

I had loved studying the map because it was a printed explanation of where I had been placed on earth. It was a love song to location, a psalm of praise to both measurement and extent.

[P]enmanship as pretty as a row of tulips . . .
And my favorite: 

My own tears seemed landlocked and frozen in a glacier I could not reach or touch within me.
Wow. Simply a stunning sentence in which Conroy combines his powerful metaphor and vocabulary to texturize this thought.  

Because Conroy is a lover of books and words, he is able to create this description from experience:

This room had long served as a retreat from the disharmony and sadness of the first floor, and it was here I had fallen in love with these books and authors in a way that only lifelong readers know and understand. A good movie had never once affected me in the same life-changing way a good book could. Books had the power to alter my view of the world forever. A good movie could change my perceptions for a day.

Throughout Beach Music, I was courted with the delicious smorgasbord of story, words, people, and the warp and woof of their combination which did not cease until the book was finished and closed. As I approached the ending of the book one evening, the last twenty pages I saved to read in solitary the next morning which was a good decision because Conroy's articulation of one of the last episodes just undid me. Tears slipped down the sides of my face wetting my pillow, and before long, I was almost weeping. [There is no real spoiler here -- it is obvious from the beginning of the book that this will happen, but if you want to avoid any more information, skip this next (drop-downed) quote which ends this post until after you read the book.] Any booklover will commiserate. 

It took Lucy forty hours to die and we hardly left her side. . . .We spent those last hours kissing her frequently and telling her how deeply we love her. Then I began to read Leah's children's books out loud to her. She had lived a storyless childhood, so I read in the last day of her the books she had missed. I told her about Winnie the Pooh and Yertle the Turtle, took her Where the Wild Things Are, introduced her to Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland. Each of us took turns reading to her out of Grimm's Fairy Tales, and, at the very last, Leah insisted that I tell all the Great Dog Chippie stories I had told her during our year of exile from the family in Rome. 


Carol in Oregon said...

I am going to read this book in 2016. I loved My Reading Life. Until I get my hands on a copy, I will re-read this review. Beautiful! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Janie said...

Thanks for the kind words, Carol! I would think you would love the writing in this book, *if* you can get passed some of the language. ((I'm almost embarrassed to recommend it because of the language.))