Beach Music (Conroy)

Beach Music 
Pat Conroy, 1995
Random House
516 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780553381535

Beach Music tells of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife's suicide leap off a bridge in South Carolina. The story takes place in South Carolina and Rome, then reaches back in time to the Vietnam War era and the horrors of the Holocaust.

It is a novel that concerns itself with the loss of innocence. It is about the acquisition of self-knowledge and about learning to accept where we come from. It is about the eternal quest for forgiveness—seeking it in others, finding it in ourselves—so that we can begin to live again. Ultimately, it is about reclaiming the past in order to prepare a background on the canvas of the future from which hope can finally flourish.

Remembrance. Reconciliation. Redemption.

With resonant prose and unmatched insight, Conroy throws open all of the doors and windows on the human condition, revealing to us with crystal clarity the perils of the war without as well as the war within. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—October 26, 1945
Where—Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Education—B.A., The Citadel
Currently—lives in San Francisco, California, and Fripp
  Island, South, Carolina

Pat Conroy was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a young career military officer from Chicago and a Southern beauty from Alabama, whom Pat often credits for his love of language. He was the first of seven children.

His father was a violent and abusive man, a man whose biggest mistake, Conroy once said, was allowing a novelist to grow up in his home, a novelist "who remembered every single violent act... my father's violence is the central fact of my art and my life." Since the family had to move many times to different military bases around the South, Pat changed schools frequently, finally attending the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, upon his father's insistence. While still a student, he wrote and then published his first book, The Boo, a tribute to a beloved teacher.

After graduation, Conroy taught English in Beaufort, where he met and married a young woman with two children, a widow of the Vietnam War. He then accepted a job teaching underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, a remote island off the South Carolina shore. After a year, Pat was fired for his unconventional teaching practices—such as his unwillingness to allow corporal punishment of his students—and for his general lack of respect for the school's administration. Conroy evened the score when he exposed the racism and appalling conditions his students endured with the publication of The Water is Wide in 1972. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into the feature film Conrack, starring Jon Voight.

Following the birth of a daughter, the Conroys moved to Atlanta, where Pat wrote his novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. This autobiographical work, later made into a powerful film starring Robert Duvall, explored the conflicts of his childhood, particularly his confusion over his love and loyalty to an abusive and often dangerous father.

The publication of a book that so painfully exposed his family's secret brought Conroy to a period of tremendous personal desolation. This crisis resulted not only in his divorce but the divorce of his parents; his mother presented a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as "evidence" in divorce proceedings against his father.

The Citadel became the subject of his next novel, The Lords of Discipline, published in 1980. The novel exposed the school's harsh military discipline, racism and sexism. This book, too, was made into a feature film.

Pat remarried and moved from Atlanta to Rome where he began The Prince of Tides which, when published in 1986, became his most successful book. Reviewers immediately acknowledged Conroy as a master storyteller and a poetic and gifted prose stylist. This novel has become one of the most beloved novels of modern time—with over five million copies in print, it has earned Conroy an international reputation. The Prince of Tides was made into a highly successful feature film directed by Barbra Streisand, who also starred in the film opposite Nick Nolte, whose brilliant performance won him an Oscar nomination.

Beach Music (1995), Conroy's sixth book, was the story of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife's suicidal leap off a bridge in South Carolina. The story took place in South Carolina and Rome, and also reached back in time to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. This book, too, was a tremendous international bestseller.

While on tour for Beach Music, members of Conroy's Citadel basketball team began appearing, one by one, at his book signings around the country. When his then-wife served him divorce papers while he was still on the road, Conroy realized that his team members had come back into his life just when he needed them most. And so he began reconstructing his senior year, his last year as an athlete, and the 21 basketball games that changed his life. The result of these recollections, along with flashbacks of his childhood and insights into his early aspirations as a writer, is My Losing Season, Conroy's seventh book and his first work of nonfiction since The Water is Wide.

South of Broad, published in 2009, 14 years after Beach Music, tells the story of friendships, first formed in high school, that span two decades.

In 2013, Conroy published his memoir, The Death of Santini, in which he revealed in greater detail his childhool and family life,  especially the brutality of his father. Eventually, however, before his father's death, Pat and his father achieved peace, and Pat learned to forgive.

He currently lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina with his wife, the novelist Cassandra King. (Adapted from the author's website and Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Mr. Conroy is verbosely eloquent, imaginatively violent and a superior yarn spinner, sometimes to a fault....What betrays Mr. Conroy too often are his flights of lyrical prose. True, now and then he catches the lightning instead of the lightning bug....Most damaging of all, Beach Music builds to a disappointing climax that is quite literally staged and rings as false as Eugene O'Neill at his most wooden....When all is said and overdone in Beach Music, Mr. Conroy leaves you begging for less.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt - New York Times

Conroy has not lost his touch. His storytelling powers have not failed; neither has his poetic skill with words, nor his vivid imagination. His long-awaited sixth book sings with the familiar elegiac Southern cadences, his prose is sweepingly lyrical (if sometimes melodramatic), unabashedly sentimental (if sometimes indigestibly schmaltzy). The hero, Jack McCall, describes himself as a man on the run from his past: the suicide of his beloved wife; the destructive influence of his icy, manipulative mother and mean, bullying, alcoholic father; the betrayal of his youthful ideals, his faith in the Catholic Church, his boyhood friends. There is, of course, the familiar theme of dysfunctional families; in addition to the McCalls, two other family units vie for the dubious title of most messed-up. But Conroy has added a new element here, by dramatizing his conviction that the "unbearable wound" of Vietnam was our country's spiritual Holocaust. Conroy takes on these emotionally laden issues in chapters so direct and powerful that readers will be moved by his intimacy with the material, and perhaps astonished by his authority over it. Conroy meshes complex plot lines with ease. Jack, a food and travel writer, fled with his toddler daughter, Leah, to Rome in 1982 in the wake of his wife Shyla's suicidal jump from a bridge in Charleston, S.C., and her parents' subsequent lawsuit to deny him custody of Leah. He returns home some years later because his mother is dying of leukemia. In addition to becoming embroiled in family tension, he begins a slow process of reconciliation with Shyla's parents, who eventually tell him the stories of their respective Holocaust experiences; with his first love, Ledare Ashley, now a scriptwriter employed by their youthful chum, Mike Hess, to write a screenplay of their growing-up years; and with his parents and siblings. He witnesses the return to Waterford of another friend, Jordan Elliot, who has been presumed dead for 18 years after he was accused of murder during a protest against the Vietnam War, and who was betrayed by the fourth member of their boyhood clan, Capers Middleton, who is now running for governor of South Carolina. Though the book suffers from some florid digressions (a fish story that makes Jonah's adventure seem tame, a totally inappropriate shaggy-dog tale), it is always passionately sincere. Conroy's dark humor has its usual sardonic edge, and his characters' rat-a-tat repartee is laden with casual obscenities and jocular insults. As expected, the characters are larger than life-impossibly beautiful, romantic, witty; in particular, Jack's precocious daughter may seem too mature, sweet, graceful, poised and smart to be true. In the end, of course, as Jack understands that everybody in his life carries a tragic secret equal to the anguish he bears, he achieves healing in the very community, and the very South, he had been determined to leave forever.
Publishers Weekly

Conroy's was the most talked-about book at the American Booksellers Association convention, even though it was reputedly only half-written. Hero Jack McCall, who has fled to Rome after his wife's suicide, is asked to locate a Sixties buddy whose antiwar activity drove him underground.
Library Journal

[W]e also must admit that Conroy plays the high-concept game as well as anyone. Like Mitchell, he builds narrative momentum that is impossible to resist, and he writes with a hammy eloquence that, while often infuriating, fits his subject matter perfectly. You won't stop reading, but you'll hate yourself in the morning.

Discussion Questions
1. The book begins and ends with Shyla. What’s her importance to the narrative? How does her suicide set the story into motion?

2. Jack finds the South both alluring and repellent–to him it is simultaneously a place of great beauty and great danger. After hearing his story and those of his friends and relatives, do you agree with him? And do you think that Jack’s view of the South is informed by Pat Conroy’s own views?

3. For Jack, food is a comfort–almost a religion. What do the other characters hold dear, and what does it say about them?

4. In the novel, Jack and Ledare are writing a script for a television series about their families’ lives. Mike makes it clear that this series will tell the exact same stories that Jack narrates to us. Why do you think Pat Conroy decided to do this? Does it shape your reading of the book?

5. The ocean has such a palpable presence that it feels like it’s a character itself. What do you think it symbolizes? Does it have a different meaning for each of the characters?

6. If you’re familiar with Pat Conroy’s other novels, what parallels can you draw between the father-son relationships in his previous stories and Jack’s and Jordan’s relationships with their fathers?

7. Jack has so many brothers that, with the exception of John Hardin, they tend to blend together. Why do you think he has so many brothers? What’s their role in the novel?

8. Many of the novel’s characters are incredibly concerned by how they appear to others: Lucy creates a fake past for herself to hide her whitetrash roots; General Elliott is fixated on being the perfect military man—even unto the point of abandoning his son; and Capers is obsessed with his family’s legacy. Do you think these characters go too far? Is their preoccupation with appearances the result of their southern upbringing?

9.When Capers tries to catch the gigantic manta ray on his fishing trip with Jack, Jordan, and Mike, he almost kills all of them. What’s the significance of his failure? Does it make him a tragic figure?

10. Shyla is so deeply impacted by her father’s untold story that she tattoos her arm with his concentration camp number before jumping to her death. Do you think that hidden stories can end up being more powerful than shared ones? Why?

11. Betsy hates Jack. She says, “I’m trying to think where I met a bigger asshole.” What’s unlikable about Jack, and where do we see it besides in his treatment of Betsy? Do you think Jack’s flaws make him an unreliable narrator?

12. The two holiest men in the novel—Father Jude and Jordan–have both killed people. What does this say about the author’s vision of right and wrong? Can murder be justified? Can it be atoned for outside of a prison cell?

13. At the end of the novel, we find out that the Vietnam War was the event that ended up splicing Jack’s group of friends. Were the characters responsible for their actions, or were events beyond their control?

14. Did Jack make the right choice by forgiving Capers?

15.Why does Jack decide to return to Rome at the end of the novel?

16. What does the title Beach Music mean to you after finishing the book?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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