Friday, May 14, 2004

Book Review: Beach Music

Beach Music, by Pat Conroy, was the lunchtime book I just finished. It's 799 pretty dense pages, and even being a fast reader, knocking it out in 45-minute-per-day intervals took quite a while. As such, it's definitely going to merit a re-read under different circumstances so I can get through it more quickly and get a better feel for it.

Despite some pretty serious flaws, I enjoyed the book for the most part. However, I think the ending may have killed it for me. The vast majority of the book is spent building up and fleshing out these great and seemingly irreconcilable tensions between characters. At the end, though, everyone sits down together, and most of the problems get worked out in the space of just a few pages. What bothered me the most was when the book's strongest and most intriguing character, Jordan Elliott, suddenly caved in, renounced some of his strongest beliefs, and forgave his father for years of abuse, and the two of them became good friends.

Even before that, there were plenty of things about this book that bothered me. The first thing I noticed was the dialogue. I have an ear for good dialogue, and there were parts of this book where it was just painful to read. People don't talk this way. It wasn't bad all the way through, but it definitely had its moments.

There was a lot of character inconsistency. Jordan's forgiveness of his father was the biggest example, but there were plenty of other examples. Most of it dealt with the main character, Jack McCall, who had moved to Rome from South Carolina to raise his daughter after his wife's suicide because he felt, essentially, that the American South had ruined his life. He spends the first part of the book focusing on his daughter, saying how he never wants her to meet his family or spend time in South Carolina for fear that they/it will ruin her life as it did his. The second part of the book, naturally, he takes her to South Carolina and essentially abandons her care to the family he never wanted her to meet while he runs around chasing his past. He treats his dying mother with bitterness, and never really explains why--all glimpses into his past show him adoring her, and she him. He hates his alcoholic father, but gets angry when another character disrespects him. I realize that real people can often be this complex and contrary, and I think characters like that can be fascinating if done well, but in this case it was just confusing and irritating. It seemed like the author wasn't being true to the character, rather than actual character complexity.

The narration was troublesome as well. It was told from the first-person point of view of McCall, which is fine. The premise of the book is predicated on his emotions, and that's the best way of getting right into his head. A problem arises whenever there's a flashback or a telling of someone else's story, and somehow Jack knows every bit of it. If he's the narrator, it's only through him the story can be told, right? Yet there's no way he can know as much of these other stories as he does. It becomes sort of a first-person omniscient point of view, and it doesn't work all that well.

Conroy also includes some minor storylines that never really get tied up anywhere. Jack tells his daughter stories of "The Great Dog Chippie," which we eventually find out was his childhood pet. We never really find out what was so great about this dog, though. There's only one anecdote that includes the dog, and its role is pretty minor. There's also a passage in the middle of the book where Jack is shot by terrorists in the Rome airport, and I still haven't figured out the point of that.

And don't even get me started on Jack getting re-married at the end of the book, after making it clear to his new bride that she would always be second in his heart to the first wife who killed herself. I would understand him just feeling that way, but I can't imagine someone actually going so far out of their way to point it out to the person they're marrying, and I further can't imagine that person being okay with it. This scenario is a real stretch.

After all this, you may be wondering what I liked about the book. For one thing, there are whole passages where the prose is just incredible. Conroy definitely has a way with words. I love the English language, and I have a hard time disliking the writing of anyone who is good with it. Another thing that draws me into a book is strong emotion and rapport between characters. Conroy did well with this. The dialogue was wooden at times, but never so much so that the characters didn't seem real. I had a feel for each of the main characters, and this book, for all its flaws, is definitely emotionally charged. I felt the emotion, and it drew me in.

Still, I just don't think I can get past the ending. I was really bothered by how quickly and neatly everything ended. This wasn't a book that should have gone that way. With all the conflicts these people had, it should have been impossible for everything to be reconciled, especially Jordan and his father. The way Conroy brought an end to that conflict is sloppy and inexcusable.

I'm going to read this book again, though, and I'll post more thoughts if anything substantial comes up.

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