I can tell by your reluctance to follow basic orders that you need convincing. Fine with me, I can talk about this book like I can talk about anything I think is genius - like Jennifer Nettles, Jeff Buckley, or the BMW 7 Series.
I suppose a good way to begin is by telling you that I waited for this book to be released for almost 5 years. It was released on June 28th, 1996 - a Tuesday, if memory serves. That day is a marked occasion for me as it was the 10th anniversary of the suicide of my beloved best friend Staci, and that combined with my love of Pat Conroy's work forced an 11:45 PM drive to Walmart to wait for it to be unpacked and shelved. The moment I saw the cover peeking from a pallet of boxes in the middle of the book aisle, I grabbed the top hardcover in the stack and hugged it - then ran to the register and bought it immediately, went to my car in the parking lot, read the prologue, and cried the way people who have missed a long lost friend do once that friend suddenly comes into view after a planned reunion. Here I am now, in the midst of rereading it for probably the 20th time (at least) and though I'm only on chapter 14 of 40 total I have already been elated, crushed, and reborn from the beauty, elegance, searing honesty, and fire of this most phenomenal of any novel I've ever read before. And anyone who knows me knows I'm a voracious reader, so consider that declaration fairly substantial. This is a book that even people who don't enjoy reading for reading's sake and pleasure have read at my bequest and thanked me for the introduction upon completion of the story.
It is the story of love, loss, honor, betrayal, grief, guilt, renewal, and faith. It is the story of many intertwined people, and how no matter what some people do to destroy you - you can still find something in them to love and call your own.
Beach Music is the story of Jack McCall, the American expatriate from South Carolina who emigrates to Rome with his 2 year old daughter after his wife and childhood sweetheart Shyla commits suicide. Grief stricken, and with little help from his own family that is so fraught with dysfunction one wonders how a child could breathe in that house, he focuses solely on raising his little girl Leah, so much the spitting image of her mother that you'd ache.
Shyla's parents, holocaust survivors George and Ruth Fox ("George and Ruth Fox were afraid of dogs and cats and their own shadows," Conroy writes. "They jumped whenever there was an unexpected knock at the door." Jack recalls how, growing up, "the Foxes' house on the Point in Waterford was simply an annex of Bergen-Belsen, a rest stop on the way to the crematoriums...The house floated with tears and terror and uncontainable fury and music that made children dream of the jackbooted intruders who lit their way with torches made of Jewish hair.") sue him for custody of his own child by attempting to have him declared an unfit parent. His vow to himself and his beautiful and tormented dead wife lead him to Italy where he tries for several years to raise his daughter Leah as a headstrong Italian with no knowledge of the betrayal that burned her father out of Waterford, South Carolina. In doing so, the child's inquisitiveness about his past forces Jack to spin an imaginary tale of the beauty that is the low country, filled with wonder and awe and magnificent family that create an image of paradise in Leah's mind - and a fire to know her homeland, her family, and what really happened to the mother she can barely remember. He holds it all back until the fateful telegram that comes from nowhere telling him he must come home, that his mother is dying.
Reuniting with his family and childhood best friends and recalling the betrayal, tragedy, and grief they all collectively suffer gives way to shocking new revelations that turn the story on its own ear several times. From the scheming, completely loathsome Capers Middleton and his trophy wife Betsy (former Miss South Carolina) to the fearless, honorable, physically gorgeous and completely sexy "fuck authority" sneer of Jordan Elliott (the only time I have ever fallen madly in love with a character from a novel was with Conroy's depiction of Jordan Elliott, of whom the very thought induces fantasies in me) this book reeks of the beautiful and completely heartbreaking characters in all their flawed, outrageous humanity - but you cannot get enough of them. It is an epic novel spanning close to a complete century of history, all told in a language that is both languid and sensual. Beach Music reads like the best dream you ever had and much much more.
A few of my favorite excerpts, just to give you an idea of the book and show those unfamiliar with Conroy's storytelling why he is my favorite author:
[Jack is having dinner in Rome with Shyla's sister Martha, who has hired a private investigator to find him for her so she could try and persuade him to let Leah know Shyla's side of her family]
"My father still blames you for Shyla's death," Martha said. "It's only fair you should know that."
"You know, Martha," I said wearily, "I always thought I'd make a great son-in-law. Fishing trips. Card games. That kind of shit. And I get stuck with that dreary, juiceless, raggedy-assed father of yours. I could never figure him out. But you know all this. You grew up in that hothouse of pain."
"Why do you hate me for loving my father?" she asked.
"Because of your pathetic lack of honesty. The awful and dangerous pretense of loyalty. He's been poison for you just like he was poison for Shyla and your mother. The women in his life cluster around him, protect him, find virtue in his bitterness. You don't have to love him. You pity him. The way I do. Yet I've rarely met a grander shit on earth."
"Why do you hate him so much?"
"I pity the dreadful son of a bitch."
"He doesn't need your pity."
"Then he's welcome to my hatred."
[Jack and his childhood friend Ledare, the stunningly beautiful one, are in the antique shop in Rome owned by Jack's landlords, the Raskovic brothers, paying his rent.]
"Ah, Jack," Spiro said, pointing to a photograph taken in the early fifties of the brothers standing in a group of beautiful men and women including Gloria Swanson. "We were beautiful when young."
"Once we were part of a salon, signore," Savo said, "where the only ticket for admittance was attractiveness."
Spiro said, "The mirror used to be my friend. Now it is an assassin."
[Jack is in the home of his childhood friend Mike Hess, now big time Hollywood movie producer and part time cretin, with Ledare, the pretty but shallow Betsy Middleton, and her husband (and Ledare's ex-husband) Capers Middleton, who unforgivably betrayed them all as friends and now seeks to make amends as he is running on the Republican ticket for Governor of SC. Jack sees Capers as archrival, and is sparring with Betsy in order to wound Capers when she takes the match too far.]
The tension in the room made the air strange and electric. While Mike poured the cognac, I tried to guess at Betsy's age, then remembered she was twenty-five. I knew I had seen her before, but could not place where. Then it came to me and I laughed out loud.
"I was thinking of doing several things. Jack," Ledare said.
"Laughing was not one of them."
I pointed at Betsy, barely able to speak. "Betsy was Miss South Carolina. Capers dumped you for a Miss South Carolina. Betsy Singleton of Spartanburg."
"I was very proud to serve my state for an entire year," Betsy said and I liked her scrappiness. "And to represent South Carolina at Atlantic City before the whole world was my happiest moment before my wedding day."
"I've been living in Europe too long, Betsy. I forgot girls like you existed. You might win this governor's thing, Capers. South Carolina might just buy this shit."
"Give her a break," Mike said. "She's just a kid."
"She's been wonderful to our children," Capers said. "Ledare will be glad to tell you that."
"Betsy has been very kind to me also," Ledare said.
"That's so sweet of you to say," Betsy said.
"Ledare didn't mean a word of it, " I said. "It reeked of insincerity."
"Let me be the judge of that, please," Ledare shot back icily.
"You gave up Ledare Ansley for Betsy," I said to Capers. "What a shallow fuck you are, Capers."
"Jack, please, please control it, man," Mike said.
"Kiss my ass, Mike." And I turned to him. "I'll never forget what Capers Middleton did if I live to be a thousand and I'll never forgive the son of a bitch either. What the hell did you think was going to happen when you brought us together? That we were going to go out to a blind and shoot ducks together tomorrow?"
"This was a very cruel idea, Mike," Ledare said, suddenly rising and taking her snifter and pouring her cognac into Mike's glass. "You shouldn't have done it to Jack or me. You shouldn't have done it to Capers or Betsy."
"How else can I get us all back together?" Mike said. "It's for the project. Remember who's producing this project. Please stay."
But Ledare was already striding with her pretty long legs out the back door. Mike followed her, trying to talk her into returning, but I heard the motor crank and knew the boat was moving toward Waterford.
I turned to study Capers' yearling wife, Betsy.
She was one of those Southern girls too pretty for me by half. Betsy looked like a poster child for an ad extolling the virtues of drinking milk. Everything about her struck me as overdone and combed out and thought through. Her perkiness was of that dreamy, mechanical sort that often wins beauty queens Miss Congeniality trophies. She possessed the kind of looks that inspires praise but not lust. Her smile made me want to ask for her dentist's name.
"You're twenty-five, aren't you, Betsy?" I asked.
"Are you running a census?" Betsy fired back.
"Yes, she's twenty-five," Capers said.
"Let me guess. A Tri Delt at South Carolina."
"Bingo," Mike said, coming into the room again.
"Bingo," Mike said again.
"How did you know that?" Betsy asked.
"You've got the Junior League squint. All sorority girls in college learn to squint that way to make their husbands feel properly adored when they utter some inanity."
"You're stereotyping me, Jack," Betsy said and I saw real fire in her.
"The South stereotyped you, Betsy. I'm just testing the limits of the stereotype."
Capers put his arm around his wife and said, "Betsy was raised to be a Southern belle. No harm in that."
"I'm proud of it," Betsy said.
"Southern belle," I said. "It's a mark of shame in the South now, Betsy. Smart women don't call themselves that anymore. If a woman calls herself that, it usually means she's dumb as a pinto bean. You're obviously very bright, even though you have deplorable taste in men."
"I'm still a Southern belle and I think I have the best taste in men of any woman in South Carolina."
"I married Betsy because other loyalty. Jack."
"Wrong. There's only one real crime a man can commit that is unforgivable."
"What's that?" Capers asked as Mike resumed his seat.
"It's unforgivable for a man of any generation—any generation—to betray and humiliate the women of his own generation by marrying a much younger woman. You didn't marry Betsy for her loyalty, pal. You married her for her youth."
"There are unexpected pleasures in betrayal," Capers said and Mike laughed in agreement. "I always liked your piety, Jack."
"I'm a lot cuter than the women of your generation," Betsy said, playing up to Capers and Mike.
"Wrong, Junior Leaguer." I could feel myself turning mean. The cognac was doing its work and I felt the thrilling disquiet that had come into the room. I took Betsy's measure, and went for her throat. "The women of my generation were the smartest, sexiest, most fascinating women ever to grow up in America. They started the women's liberation movement, took to the streets in the sixties to stop the unbearably stupid Vietnam War. They fought their asses off for equal rights in the workplace, went to law school, became doctors, fought the corporate fight, and managed to raise children in a much nicer way than our mothers did."
"Chill out, Jack," Mike said. "Betsy's a kid."
"She's a dimwit," I said. I turned to Betsy. "The women of my generation make men like me and Mike and your chicken-hearted husband look puny and uninteresting by comparison. Don't talk about those women, Betsy, unless you're on your fucking knees genuflecting out of admiration."
"He was in love with Ledare once, Betsy," Capers said with his elegant composure intact. "She broke up with him just before the St. Cecelia's ball in Charleston. Jack's always been bitter that he comes from the lower classes."
"Betsy, you aren't worthy to kiss Ledare Ansley's panty hose," I shot back.
"But she married Capers, and dumped you," Betsy said. "I do have to say she's gone up in my estimation."
"I thought I could count on you to have good manners," Mike said to me, trying to defuse the rapid escalation of the repartee. "Betsy's a great chick. She and Capers have been out to my place in Beverly Hills a couple of times this year."
"I'm only trying to hurt Capers," I said. "Because Capers knows I can write Betsy's life story right here, this moment, in this room. I've met a thousand women like poor Betsy. It bothers Capers that he has married a living, breathing Southern cliché. I can tell Capers who Betsy'll vote for in the next fifty years, how many children she'll have, and what she'll name them. I can tell Betsy her silver pattern, her china pattern, her father's profession, her mother's maiden name, and the Confederate regiment her great-great-grand-father served in at the Second Battle of Bull Run."
"My great-great-great-grandfather was killed at Antietam."
"So sorry, Betsy. These details sometimes trip me up."
Betsy took a sip of cognac and said, "Where'd I get my master's, asshole?"
"I wish you wouldn't use language like that, darling," Capers said.
But I was thrilled and surprised by the comeback and said, "Not bad, Betsy. Complimenti. I never would've guessed. Every time I think I know everything there is to know about Southern women, they send me a curve ball I could never hit. That was simply terrific."
"I only marry smart, savvy, and beautiful women, Jack," Capers said. "I should have proven that to you by now."
"Shut up, Capers," I said. "I need to insult your wife a little more so she'll run off in a huff."
"I'm thinking about kicking you out of my house, Jack," Mike said.
"Unfortunately, Mike, there's a size problem," I said. "You shut up, too, because you and I are going to have a long talk about why you set up this evening."
"Hey, Jack," Betsy said. "Now I understand why your wife jumped off the bridge. I'm just amazed it took her so long."
"Ever say that again, Betsy, and I'll beat up your husband. I'll beat his face in so badly that he'll be working in a freak show instead of the governor's office."
Betsy turned toward Capers, who remained unflappable. "My husband doesn't look scared."
"He's scared. He just doesn't show it."
"He went to Vietnam. You were a draft dodger."
"That's right, Miss South Carolina. Funny part is, I can still kick his ass. If guys like me had gone to Vietnam, we would've won the war. Ponder that the next time you're making cheese biscuits or deviled eggs."
"Liberals are all the same," Betsy spat out, and she was uncomfortable on center stage. "I heard your wife was a raging feminist."
"We both were," I said. "I'm raising my daughter to be one too."
"What good will that do her?"
"She won't be a fucking thing like you, Betsy," I said, "because I'd throw my daughter off the Cooper River bridge if she was anything like you or married to someone like Capers Middleton."
Betsy Middleton rose with great dignity and turned to her husband. "Let's go. Capers. We can spend the night at your mother's. I'll call the maid."
"Night, night, Betsy," I said, hearing my voice mocking and cruel. "I remember the talent portion of your Miss America number. You twirled fire batons. I was embarrassed for my whole state and every woman in it."
Betsy was in tears as she left and I felt a sickening sadness overwhelm me.