Beach Music, p.1Pat Conroy
Critical Acclaim for Pat Conroy and
“Blockbuster writing at its best.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
—The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
“Conroy has not lost his touch … [Beach Music] sings with the familiar elegiac Southern cadences, his prose is sweepingly lyrical.”
—The Boston Globe
“Lyrical … evocative … Beach Music is one from the heart, and it beats with a vibrancy that cannot be denied.”
—The Hartford Courant
“A powerful, heartfelt tale.”
“Breathtaking … perhaps the most eagerly awaited book of the year … a knockout.”
—The Charlotte Observer
“Beach Music attains an almost ethereal beauty.”
—The Miami Herald
“Few novelists write as well, and none as beautifully … Conroy’s narrative is so fluid and poetic that it’s apt to seduce you into reading just one more page, just one more chapter.”
“Fans of Conroy will revel in his pages and pages of lush, lyrical prose, and his wonderfully vivid characters.”
—Chattanooga News-Free Press
“Compelling storytelling … a page-turner … Conroy takes aim at our darkest emotions, lets the arrow fly and hits a bull’s-eye almost every time.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Conroy is an outstanding storyteller.”
—The Birmingham News
By Pat Conroy
THE WATER IS WIDE
THE GREAT SANTINI
THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE
THE PRINCE OF TIDES
MY LOSING SEASON
THE PAT CONROY COOKBOOK:
RECIPES OF MY LIFE
And coming soon from Pat Conroy
SOUTH OF BROAD
Beach Music is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
2009 Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition
Copyright © 1995 by Pat Conroy
Reading group guide copyright © 2009 by Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
THE DIAL PRESS and DIAL PRESS TRADE PAPERBACKS are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc., and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
RANDOM HOUSE READER’S CIRCLE and colophon is a registered trademark of
Random House, Inc.
Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday, an imprint of
The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., in 1995.
With special thanks to the following:
SUSANNAH ANSLEY CONROY, my youngest daughter and the great gift of my middle age, whom I love with my heart.
TIM BELK, life-friend, piano man, Southerner in San Francisco.
DOUG MARLETTE, my “Kudzu” friend, who has shown me that the artist works only with fire.
The novelist MICHAEL MEWSHAW and LINDA KIRBY MEWSHAW, who taught me the meaning of hospitality and made The Roman Years the magic ones.
DR. MARION O‘NEILL, lifesaver and Hilton Head Islander.
NAN TALESE, my brilliant and lovely editor. My wish is that every writer could have such a magnificent editing experience.
JULIAN BACH, my agent and the last, great gentleman; and MARLY RUSOFF, my longtime Minnesota friend and one of the great loves of my life.
COL. JOSEPH WESTER JONES, JR., and JEAN GAULDIN JONES of Newbern, Tennessee, for their generosity, courage, and class.
And their son, CAPT. JOSEPH W. JONES III, American hero, KIA Vietnam, the father of my two oldest daughters, who did not live to see the lovely women his girls would become.
And to these essential ones:
Lenore and the kids, Jessica, Melissa, Megan,
Gregory, and Emily, Melinda and Jackson Marlette,
Betty Roberts, Margaret Holly, Dennis Adams,
Nuri Lindberg, Jane and Stan Lefco, Eugene Norris,
Bill Dufford, Sallie and Dana Sinkler, Sylvia Peto,
Sigmund and Frances Graubart, Cliff and Cynthia
Graubart, Anne Rivers and Heyward Siddons, Terry
and Tommie Kay, Mary Wilson and Gregg Smith,
Bill and Trish McCann, Joseph and Kathleen Alioto,
Yanek and Mary Chiu, Henry and Liselle Matheson,
Elayne Scott, Brooke Brunson, Carol Tuynman, Joy
Hager, Ann Torrago, Bea Belk, Sonny and Katie
Rawls, Diane Marcus, Sandee Yuen, Jesse Cohen,
Stephen Rubin, Chris Pavone, Bill and Lynne
Kovach, Herb and Gert Gurewitz, Steve, Riva,
Peter, Ann, and Jonathan Rosenfield, Rachel
Resnick, Dick and Patsy Lowry, Morgan and Julia
Randels, the people of Fripp Island, the families and
teachers of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in San
Francisco, the Sobols, the Pollaks, the O’Hearns, the
Nisbets, the Harpers of Central Florida, and the
Gillespies of Jacksonville, my in-laws, Jean, Janice,
Teri, and Bobby, also my niece, Rachel, and my
nephews, Willie and Michael. And a fond bow to
my first grandchild, Elise Michelle.
Other Books by This Author
Note to the Reader
Part I Chapter One
Part II Chapter Nine
Part III Chapter Eighteen
Part IV Chapter Twenty-two
Part V Chapter Thirty-two
Part VI Chapter Thirty-five
A Reader’s Guide
About the Author
Note to the Reader
I am grateful to those who shared their memories and experiences of the Holocaust with me and thus made this book possible:
In 1980, a year after my wife leapt to her death from the Silas Pearlman Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, I moved to Italy to begin life anew, taking our small daughter with me. Our sweet Leah was not quite two when my wife, Shyla, stopped her car on the highest point of the bridge and looked over, for the last time, the city she loved so well. She had put on the emergency brake and opened the door of our car, then lifted herself up to the rail of the bridge with the delicacy and enigmatic grace that was always Shyla’s catlike gift. She was also quick-witted and funny, but she carried within her a dark side that she hid with bright allusions and an irony as finely wrought as lace. She had so mastered the strategies of camouflage that her own history had seemed a series of well-placed mirrors that kept her hidden from herself.
It was nearly sunset and a tape of the Drifters’ Greatest Hits poured out of the car’s stereo. She had recently had our car serviced and the gasoline tank was full. She had paid all the bills and set up an appointment with Dr. Joseph for my teeth to be cleaned. Even in her final moments, her instincts tended toward the orderly and the functional. She had always prided herself in keeping her madness invisible and at bay; and when she could no longer fend off the voices that grew inside her, their evil set to chaos in a minor key, her breakdown enfolded upon her, like a tarpaulin pulled across that part of her brain where once there had been light. Having served her time in mental hospitals, exhausted the wide range of pharmaceuticals, and submitted herself to the priestly rites of therapists of every theoretic persuasion, she was defenseless when the black music of her subconscious sounded its elegy for her time on earth.
On the rail, all eyewitnesses agreed, Shyla hesitated and looked out toward the sea and shipping lanes that cut past Fort Sumter, trying to compose herself for the last action of her life. Her beauty had always been a disquieting thing about her and as the wind from the sea caught her black hair, lifting it like streamers behind her, no one could understand why anyone so lovely would want to take her own life. But Shyla was tired of feeling ill-made and transitory and she wanted to set the flags of all her tomorrows at half-mast. Three days earlier, she had disappeared from our house in Ansonborough and only later did I discover that she had checked into the Mills-Hyatt House to put her affairs in order. After making appointments, writing schedules, letters, and notes that would allow our household to continue in its predictable harmony, she marked the mirror in her hotel room with an annulling X in bright red lipstick, paid her bill with cash, flirted with the doorman, and gave a large tip to the boy who brought her the car. The staff at the hotel remarked on her cheerfulness and composure during her stay.
As Shyla steadied herself on the rail of the bridge a man approached her from behind, a man coming up from Florida, besotted with citrus and Disney World, and said in a low voice so as not to frighten the comely stranger on the bridge, “Are you okay, honey?”
She pirouetted slowly and faced him. Then with tears streaming down her face, she stepped back, and with that step, changed the lives of her family forever. Her death surprised no one who loved her, yet none of us got over it completely. Shyla was that rarest of suicides: no one held her responsible for the act itself; she was forgiven as instantly as she was missed and afterward she was deeply mourned.
For three days I joined the grim-faced crew of volunteers who searched for Shyla’s remains. Ceaselessly, we dragged the length and breadth of the harbor, enacting a grotesque form of braille as hooks felt their way along the mudflats and the pilings of the old bridge that connected Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island. Two boys were crabbing when they noticed her body moving toward them beside the marsh grass.
After her funeral, a sadness took over me that seemed permanent, and I lost myself in the details and technicalities connected to death in the South. Great sorrow still needs to be fed and I dealt with my disconsolate emptiness by feeding everyone who gathered around me to offer their support. I felt as though I were providing sustenance for the entire army in the field who had come together to ease the malignant ache I felt every time Shyla’s name was mentioned. The word Shyla itself became a land mine. That sweet-sounding word was merciless and I could not bear to hear it.
So I lost myself in the oils and condiments of my well-stocked kitchen. I fatted up my friends and family, attempted complicated recipes I had always put off making, and even tried my hand at Asian cuisine for the first time. With six gas burners ablaze, I turned out velvety soups and rib-sticking stews. I alternated between cooking and weeping and I prayed for the repose of the soul of my sad, hurt wife. I suffered, I grieved, I broke down, and I cooked fabulous meals for those who came to comfort me.
It was only a short time after we buried Shyla that her parents sued me for custody of my child, Leah, and their lawsuit brought me running back into the real world. I spent a dispiriting year in court trying to prove my fitness as a father. It was a time when I met a series of reptilian lawyers so unscrupulous that I would not have used their marrow to feed wild dogs or their wiry flesh to bait a crab pot. Shyla’s mother and father had gone crazy with grief and I learned much about the power of scapegoating by watching their quiet hatred of me as they grimaced through the testimony regarding my sanity, my finances, my reputation in the community, and my sexual life with their eldest child.
Though I have a whole range of faults that piqued the curiosity of the court, few who have ever seen me with my daughter have any doubts about my feelings for her. I get weak at the knees at the very sight of her. She is my certification, my boarding pass into the family of man, and whatever faith in the future I still retain.
But it was not my overriding love of Leah that won the day in court. Before she took her final drive, Shyla had mailed me a letter that was part love letter and part apology for what she had done. When my lawyer had me read that letter aloud to the court, it became clear to Shyla’s parents and everyone present that laying her death at my feet was, at best, a miscarriage of justice. Her letter was an act of extraordinary generosity written in the blackest hours of her life. She blew it like a kiss toward me as a final gesture of a rare, exquisite sensibility. Her letter saved Leah for me. But the ferocity of that court battle left me exhausted, bitter, and raw around the edges. It felt as though Shyla had died twice.
I answered my wife’s leap from the bridge and the fierceness of that legal battle with a time of disorientation and sadness; and then with Italy. Toward Europe, I looked for respite and hermitage, and the imminence of my secret flight from South Carolina again restored a fighting spirit within me. I had made a good living as a food and travel writer and running away had always been one of the things I did best.
The flight to Europe was my attempt to place the memory of both Shyla and South Carolina permanently in the past. I hoped I would save my life and Leah’s from the suffocation I was beginning to feel in the place where Shyla and I had come of age together. For me, the South was carry-on baggage I could not shed no matter how many borders I crossed, but my daughter was still a child and I wanted her to grow into young womanhood as a European, blissfully unaware of that soft ruinous South that had killed her mother in one of its prettiest rivers. My many duties as a father I took with great seriousness, but there was no law that I was aware of that insisted I raise Leah as a Southerner. Certainly, the South had been a mixed blessing for
Though my mother was onto something real, I stuck by my guns. I would tell American tourists who questioned me about my accent that I no longer checked the scores of the Atlanta Braves in the Herald Tribune and they could not get me to reread Faulkner or Miss Eudora at gunpoint. I did not realize or care that I was attempting to expunge all that was most authentic about me. I was serious about needing some time to heal and giving my soul a much needed rest. My quest was amnesia; my vehicle was Rome. For five years, my plan worked very well.
But no one walks out of his family without reprisals: a family is too disciplined an army to offer compassion to its deserters. No matter how much they sympathized with all my motives, those who loved me most read a clear text of treason in my action. They thought that by forcing me away from South Carolina, Shyla’s leap had succeeded in taking Leah and me over the rail with her.
I understood completely, but I was so burnt out I did not care. I threw myself at the Italian language with gusto and became fluent in the street talk of the shopkeepers and the vendors of our neighborhood. In the first year of our exile, working all the angles of my trade, I completed my third cookbook, a compilation of recipes I had gathered over a ten-year career of dining out in some of the best restaurants in the South. I also wrote a travel book on Rome that became popular with American tourists as soon as it hit the giornalai. I urged every American who read it to understand Rome was both sublime and imperishably beautiful, a city that melted into leaf-blown silences and gave a splendid return to any tourist adventurous enough to stray from the main trade routes of tourism. All the pangs and difficulties of my own homesickness went into the writing of that book. The artfully hidden subtext in those first years was that foreign travel was worth every discomfort and foul-up, but took a radical toll on the spirit. Though I could write about the imperishable charms of Rome forever, I could not quiet that pearly ache in my heart that I diagnosed as the cry of home.
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