Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Pat Conroy Is a Genius – Review of “Prince of Tides”

I have known of “Prince of Tides,” for many years, and enjoyed the film version that starred Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte. And I have enjoyed reading some of Pat Conroy’s other works – “Lords of Discipline,” “Beach Music” – but I had never picked up the novel, “Prince of Tides” until a few weeks ago. Am I glad I did! Conroy’s mastery of language and imagery make the book so much more satisfying than the movie. If all you know of “Prince of Tides” comes from having seen the story portrayed on the screen, it would be analogous to only knowing “Ode to Joy” from reading Schiller’s poem without ever having heard Beethoven’s music that brings the words to life and immortality in his majestic 9th Symphony.

I thought long and hard about this next statement, because it is a bold statement. I know of no American writer working today who uses words more beautifully and with greater emotional effect than Pat Conroy. His vast storehouse of vocabulary allows him to choose from a wide variety of brushstrokes as he paints indelible images of place and of persons who come alive and golden through the alchemy of his writing.

I invite you to eavesdrop on the Wingo family at sunset in the Carolina low country:

“’I have a surprise for you my darlings,’ our mother said as we watched a porpoise move towards the Atlantic through the still, metallic waters. We sat at the end of the floating dock and stretched our legs, trying to touch the water with our bare feet.

‘There’s something I want you to see. Something that will help you sleep. Look over there, children,’ she said, pointing out toward the horizon to the east.

It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils. Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold . . . The new gold of moon astonishing and ascendant, the depleted gold of sunset extinguishing itself in the long westward slide, it was the old dance of days in the Carolina marshes, the breathtaking death of days before the eyes of children, until the sun vanished, its final signature a ribbon of bullion strung across the tops of water oaks. The moon then rose quickly, rose like a bird from the water, from the trees, from the islands, and climbed straight up – gold, then yellow, then pale yellow, pale silver, silver-bright, then something miraculous, immaculate, and beyond silver, a color native only to southern nights.

We children sat transfixed before that moon our mother had called forth from the waters. When the moon had reached its deepest silver, my sister, Savannah, though only three, cried aloud to our mother, to Luke and me, to the river and the moon, ‘Oh, Mama, do it again!’ And I had my earliest memory.” (Pages 5-6)

The tale that Conroy tells of the wildly dysfunctional Wingo tribe is a heartrending story of five misfits struggling desperately to find their place in the world and within the twin microcosms of their family and their backwater town. It is a story of three children – all suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of the physical and emotional abuse heaped upon them by their mother and father – limping into adulthood in search of love and purpose and healing and hope.

Conroy’s insights into the effects of PTSD reflect the lessons learned from those who returned from Vietnam. In the case of the Wingo's, Luke actually went off to war and came back damaged. His twin younger siblings, Tom and Savannah, never left the U.S., but were no less victims of PTSD as a result of their parents’ abusive rage and deluded denial of reality.

Tom shows remarkable self-awareness and befuddlement in talking with his wife, Sallie. He has been fired from his job as a coach and their marriage is being held together by a thin and fraying cord:

“For several minutes we walked in silence, in the disturbing solitude that sometimes visits couples at the most incongruous times. It was not a new feeling for me; I had a limitless gift for turning even those sweet souls who loved me best into strangers.

I tried to fight my way back toward Sallie, tried to regain contact. ‘I haven’t figured everything out yet. I can’t figure out why I hate myself more than anyone else in the world. It doesn’t make sense to me. Even if Mom and Dad were monsters, I should have come out of it with some kind of respect for myself as a survivor, if nothing else. I should have at least come out of it honest, but I’m the most dishonest person I’ve ever met. I never know exactly how I feel about something. There’s always something secret hidden from me.’” (Pages 26-27)

I appreciate Conroy’s use of description and dialogue to give the reader a feel for the subterranean tensions and subtext that exist between two people shadow boxing as they take one another’s measure:

“When I looked up, Dr. Lowenstein was staring at me from the door of her office. She was expensively dressed, and lean. Her eyes were dark and unadorned. In the shadows of that room, with Vivaldi fading in sweet echoes, she was breathtakingly beautiful, one of those go-to-hell New York women with the incorruptible carriage of lionesses. Tall and black-haired, she looked as if she had been air-brushed with breeding and good taste.

‘Who is the Prince of Tides?’ she asked without introducing herself.

‘Why don’t you ask Savannah?’

‘I will when she’s able to speak to me. That might be some time,’ she answered, smoothing her jacket. ‘I’m sorry. I’m Dr. Lowenstein. You must be Tom.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said, rising and following her into her office.

‘Would you like a cup of coffee, Tom?’

‘Yes, ma’am, I would,’ I said nervously.

‘Why do you call me ma’am?’ I believe we’re exactly the same age.’

‘Good home training. And nervousness.’

‘Why are you nervous? Do you take anything with your coffee?’

‘Cream and sugar. I get nervous every time my sister slits her wrists. It’s a quirk of mine.’” (Pages 56-57)

The characters that populate this saga are flawed, vulnerable and fascinating. In following the flow of the narrative, I desperately wanted each of them to find a way to solve their problems and learn to enjoy life – all the while knowing that no such facile happy ending was in the cards.

A significant subplot and counterpoint welcomes the reader into the ice palace that is the home and nuclear family of Dr. Lowenstein, her self-absorbed concert violinist husband and their perpetually sulking adolescent son. The irony is that this sophisticated and urbane family is just as flawed and toxic as the wacky Wingo’s from the wetlands. The message is clear: dysfunction, pain and abuse know no geographic or socioeconomic boundaries, but are equal opportunity employers.

I love this book for the artistry on display, and for the insights into human nature and suffering that Conroy offers on every page.



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