Conroy, a Poetic Prince

The Prince of Tides      Pat Conroy  (1986)

When Pat Conroy died in March 2016, I ran across many heartfelt tributes to his writing. I felt guilty. How had I missed reading an author so beloved by so many readers?

With a few clicks, I figured it out. Conroy wrote about the American South and about the experience of being a male Southerner who was subjected to brutality in both family and school environments. I find much fiction about the South painfully depressing. In high school, when Carson McCullers was assigned, I ate up The Heart is a Lonely Hunter but then had nightmares for weeks. Heretical as it sounds, I’ve never been enthralled by William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor.

I decided, however, to give the South another chance by reading Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. It took me several days, since this is a long—and longwinded—novel. I kept thinking how some of the lengthy dialogues could have been edited down considerably without diluting the power of the story. The narrative is complex, certainly, and I was willing to follow it to the end, but I was tempted to skip entire sections just to get on with the plot.

Briefly, that plot follows about forty years in the lives of the three Wingo siblings, who were born in the South Carolina sea islands during World War II. Their father is a successful shrimper who wastes all his earnings on get-rich-quick schemes. He flies into rages and beats his wife and children. That’s the least of the horrors that the Wingo kids endure. Slowly, very slowly, the reader gets the full picture as Tom Wingo, the first-person narrator, explains the family history to a psychiatrist who’s treating his suicidal sister, Savannah, in New York City in the early 1980s.

Despite the hundreds of scenes in this novel that feature Tom Wingo, I didn’t ever grasp his personality in full. Tom is a jokey guy, often spouting self-deprecating retorts and constantly whining about male Southerners with a grim fatalism. He reads widely and finds fulfillment in coaching adolescents in sports. But when he opens his mouth, ridiculous statements spew out.  I never figured out Tom’s mother, either. Is her repeated repression of trauma a form of abuse or of self-preservation or both? Does she exploit or regret her renowned beauty? Isn’t Conroy’s portrait of her as a young mother inconsistent with his portrait of her as an older woman? And Tom describes his brother, Luke, as a hero who’s much larger than life, which is perhaps Conroy’s way of showing how much Tom worshiped Luke.

All that aside, I found much to admire in The Prince of Tides. Conroy’s vocabulary is enormous, and his words are deployed to great effect in evoking the fragile glories of the semitropical saltwater marshes of the South Carolina coast. He tosses off striking metaphors with ease and moves actions forward with powerful verbs. He doesn’t use an ordinary noun when a fanciful one can be found; a song becomes a “canticle,” which will be the exactly right term for that sentence. The smells of the Low Country fishing industry often have metallic descriptors that succeed in recreating the place. The flora and fauna thriving in the thick, humid atmosphere are portrayed with particularity and reverence.

Conroy gives his character Savannah Wingo the vocation of poet, and he seems to envy the way Savannah can transform the stories of her troubled youth into paeans for a disappearing way of life. You can read The Prince of Tides if you want a sprawling Southern melodrama. I read The Prince of Tides for the poetry of the language.