The Shelf: Pat Conroy and The Confederate General Rides North

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Pat Conroy

Fourteen years after the unwieldy Beach Music, Atlanta native Pat Conroy is back with a novel full of all the excesses that exasperate his critics and delight his true believers. Characters are unbearably glib, settings are incomparably lush, families are tragically broken, and the dysfunctions are endless. In South of Broad (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $29.95), Conroy returns once again to his beloved South Carolina Lowcountry, offering a big, wet kiss to the humid city of Charleston. “The gardens of Charleston were mysteries walled away in ivied jewel boxes emitting their special fragrances over high walls,” Conroy writes, still breathless in his passion not only for the place but also for the English language. The protagonist of this 500-plus-page novel is Leopold Bloom King, a deeply troubled teenage boy who in the summer of 1969 is struggling to cope with the suicide of his brother, which occurred when Leo was only eight: “I went directly from a fearful childhood to a hopeless one without skipping a beat,” Conroy writes as Leo. Ultimately, South of Broad offers all the family conflict, Catholic rebellion, class warfare, and internal torment that readers expect from Conroy. An unexpected treat in this novel is an absolutely terrifying subplot involving a relentless serial killer who closes in as a hurricane bears down. “The windows of the great house wear plywood eyeglasses as folks gird their homes against a storm still four hundred miles away,” Conroy writes. “The air in the city is ominous and strange and illuminated from the outside in.” At sixty-three, the white-haired, apple-cheeked Conroy has a distinctive writing style—a sort of endearing, self-effacing bravado—that is hard to resist. You can’t fault him for showing off a little.

The Confederate General Rides North

Scribner, $25

In this extraordinary debut novel, Marietta native Amanda C. Gable punctuates a young girl’s road trip from hell with the imaginary field notes of a compassionate general: “The general considers her good fortune in coming upon a perfect strategic spot to form her battalions. But for some reason her chief aide is behaving erratically.” Set in the 1960s, eleven-year-old Civil War buff Katherine accompanies her beautiful, emotionally disturbed mother on an antiques-buying drive from Georgia to Maine, getting an unexpected education along the way in the true legacy of her revered South. By the time the mother-daughter trek ends—in Gettysburg, fittingly enough—the girl’s passion for history makes perfect sense. “Everything written and drawn there has already happened; its order will never change and I don’t have to guess at how things will turn out,” Gable writes as Katherine, capturing perfectly how frightening the vast unknown can be to an imaginative child.

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