Sunday, March 21, 2010

Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks: Beach Music

This week, I read Beach Music, by Pat Conroy, who is, you'll be glad to know, "without a doubt America's favorite storyteller"; at least, that's what the book jacket asserts.  Rarely have I been so annoyed with a book for so many different reasons.

Here's the blurb from the book jacket:
Beach Music is about Jack McCall, an American living in Rome with his young daughter, trying to find peace after the recent trauma of his wife's suicide.  But his solitude is disturbed by the appearance of his sister-in-law, who begs him to return home, and of two school friends asking for his help in tracking down another classmate who went underground as a Vietnam protester and never resurfaced.  These requests launch Jack on a journey that encompasses the past and present in both Europe [the Holocaust] and the American South [the Civil War and the sixties], and that leads him to shocking -- and ultimately liberating -- truths.  [parenthetical comments mine]
Yes, that's right.  This book has it all: betrayal, love, revenge, murder, suicide, family violence, mental illness, the Holocaust, Vietnam, treachery, dysfunction galore, cancer, terrorism, more death, child abuse in various forms, and the illegal relocation of sea turtle nests, which brings me to my first point.  Beach Music is WAY too long.  There is enough material for three novels.  But that's only the beginning of the problem.  More importantly, the disparate storylines make it impossible to commit emotionally to any one storyline.   Or even two, for that matter.  Just as I got comfortably ensconced within a narrative, the focus would shift to something completely unrelated.  These abrupt transitions demand difficult mental adjustments that, frankly, get in the way.  It's hard to be fully involved when you are constantly hopping from one place to another.

Then there are the characters themselves.  I found Jack McCall to be an ineffectual protagonist.  He often takes a hard-line position about something, only to capitulate too easily and too quickly.  This makes him seem like a blow-hard.  Most of his friends are over the top to the point of caricature: Hollywood sleazeball Mike and slimy politician Capers, for example.  I found his daughter, Leah, to be ridiculous.  Not only does she excel at everything she does and is, in effect, the perfect "magical" child, she also behaves as no other eight- to nine-year-old I've ever met (and I know my share of children in that age group).  Finally, Jack's dysfunctional family is overdone with far too many shades of The Prince of Tides to suit me:  the alcoholic father, the outcast illiterate mother who finally makes good, the mentally ill sibling.

Beach Music is only the second Conroy novel I've read, and in both I was struck by his depiction of the South as a character instead of merely a setting.  Conroy attaches a mysticism to the South that I find tiresome, as if the South ensnares its inhabitants against their will, for better or worse.  In fact, I sense a love/hate relationship with the South within Conroy himself.  Sometimes this Gothic-style conceit is successful, as in Flannery O'Connor's short stories.  But Conroy simply makes being Southern (his caps, not mine) seem more like a terminal illness than a cultural or geographical identity.  And I say this as a southerner, myself.

Characterization is not the only thing overdone in this novel.  Many of the scenes (which go on and on and on, inviting skimming -- to which I resorted on numerous occasions) are simply too far-fetched to be believable.  A gargantuan manta ray soaring over a boat, not once but twice?  Moreover, quite a few narrow escapes within the myriad storylines are either too coincidental or too preposterous to ring true.

And the absurd "courtroom drama" near the end is just too much.  I know very few people who would put up with such obvious manipulation and machinations, yet Conroy has many of his characters participate in such.  Since this scene apparently functions as the novel's denouement, it should provide the reader with a full untangling of the plot threads.  It does not.  Conroy is more interested in backstory than what's happening internally with his characters.  Jack McCall relinquishes his tightly-held opinions and beliefs too easily (not for the first time) and with no explanation.  He literally goes from hate to hugs in a way that's surprising and sort of goofy.  Frankly, some of the "friends" he forgives don't deserve to return into the fold as the narrative is written.  They do nothing to make reparation for their past actions except to give voice to a (very) few wishful and regretful thoughts -- not about what they did in the past -- that was all okay -- but what happened afterward.  This is, unbelievably, fine with Jack, despite all his posturing from the beginning of the novel up until now.  Everyone hugs and makes up.  Hmmm.

Don't misunderstand -- I'm all for forgiveness and restoration.  But Conroy neglects to show the reader the process by which Jack decides to forgive and restore.  Suddenly, he just does these things, which makes little sense.  Further, those with whom Jack reunites have behaved -- right up to this point in the narrative -- like jerks.  Now we're supposed to believe they've had a change of heart?  It simply doesn't work.

Then there are other complaints I have, such as when Jack McCall relates, "It surprised me when I read Chaucer in Old English and found him to be a most hilarious writer" (page 454).  It surprises me, too, since Chaucer wrote in Middle English, not Old English.  For Old English, turn to Beowulf.  Does no one fact-check anymore?  And who's editing this, anyway?

I ask you, is it so wrong to expect more from "America's favorite storyteller"?

1 comment:

  1. Very astute, Ellen, and I'm already disliking the author and book with the same passion I got from your review.
    I got one of the two books by Levison and I was surprised because it's very thin.
    I'd finish it soon and let you know if it helped (I bet it will).
    Hope your next book is a more pleasant read.


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