Leopold Bloom King is in love with the place of his birth: Charleston, South Carolina. Even after the suicide of his ten-year-old brother, through years of fending off the criticisms of a bitter mother, an ex-nun and James Joyce scholar, Leo remains enchanted. His adolescence is rocky - a brush with the law, probation, mandated therapy. For a boy who can survive the demands of a brittle mother, Leo, at eighteen, retains a curious and adventurous mind.
The summer he turns eighteen in the late Sixties, Leo makes a number of acquaintances, people who will become lifelong friends: Sheba and Trevor Poe, extraordinarily talented twins with a troubling family history; Niles and Starla Whitehead, orphans stigmatized by class and the prejudice of their contemporaries; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, natural son of Charleston’s elite Chadworth Rutledge X; and Ike Jefferson, son of the new black coach at the public high school where Leo’s mother is principal.
It is the season of desegregation, the beginning of Leo’s resolution with Stephen’s suicide, the nexus of lifelong friendships that will come full circle in the era of AIDS and San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and the reckoning of a violent past that haunts Sheba and Trevor from their first days as Leo’s neighbors.
This is Conroy’s home field, the language of a culture bred on civility, the dark passions and brilliant celebrations that epitomize Southern hospitality. The old and revered are challenged by the new and untried; racism and class collide, hate runs deep, and pride is as natural as breathing.
True to form, Conroy’s characters are larger than life - Leo an influential newspaper columnist, Sheba a famous Hollywood actress, Molly and Chad the perfect Charleston couple for all the resentment that simmers behind closed doors. Insouciant, gossipy, and as irresistible as a mint julep on a steamy summer afternoon, Conroy’s story is slyly seductive, charming. Leo’s innocence refreshes in a jaded world as the friends navigate the Sixties’ counterculture, beginning careers and families and finally gathering together to aid one another in crisis.
Some characters are more likable than others, but all are unique: blatantly seductive Sheba; the unabashedly outrageous Trevor; Ike, the iconic symbol of desegregation in Leo’s high school; and the rigid, controlling Lindsay King, Leo’s indomitable mother who cannot forgive her younger son for being alive when her favorite is dead. There is no attempt to hide the ugly side of Southern life, the racism, poverty, family dramas and secrets that are part of everyday existence.
Conroy’s gift for imagery, his magical way with words, brings South of Broad to life from the early days of promise to the later years where friendships have been tested and found wanting, where the rich history of place cannot hide the flaws of individuals, where the attrition of time renders everyone vulnerable. Does Conroy get lost in distractions along the way? Sometimes. But South of Broad is uniquely Southern - rich, tragic, iconic and satisfying as a fine cigar.