Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides (1986). I listened to an audio version of the book and later read portions of it that I really liked.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to reading Pat Conroy. As one who grew up in the salt marshes of coastal
, I quickly found myself drawn into the setting of this story. I knew kids whose dads were shrimpers and commercial fisherman and most of our dads, mine included, had commercial fishing licenses even if that wasn’t how they made their living. I’ve seen the sun and moon rise over the water and the sun set behind the salt marsh hundreds of times and have never tired of it. I know the rhythm of the tides and of being attuned to a change in the weather. I’ve watched porpoises play in the inland waters and gulls feed from the back of a boat. And, when the protagonist of this book, Tom Wingo, claimed that he was “more fabulist than historian,” I nodded in agreement. (77) North Carolina
Tom Wingo has nearly lost it all. He’s middle aged and feels he has not lived up to his potential. All his life his mother has instilled in him a desire to rise above his low-country roots, but he resisted. Tom is an ordinary guy, born in a hurricane during the War, while his dad was hiding from the Germans after having been shot from the sky. He looked up to his older brother, Luke, and to his twin sister,
. There was that day when he became a one-game wonder at the Savannah , running for two touchdowns against Clemson. But mostly Wingo’s life was normal. At the beginning of the novel, he’s no longer doing what he enjoys and that for which he’s truly talented: coaching high school football. Unemployed and therefore free to travel, his mother asks him to try again to save his sister, a world renowned poet, who is in a University of South Carolina mental hospital. Before he heads north, he learns his wife is having an affair with a local surgeon. His parents have divorced and his father is in jail for drug running and his mother has married the local banker (and the Wingo family enemy). We know Luke has died and the community in which he was raised was gone, but how is a secret. In fact, there are many secrets within this family, which are slowly revealed throughout the book. New York City
, Tom meets with his sister’s psychiatrist, Doctor Susan Lowenstein. The two of them meet and Tom begins to share his story as a way to help Dr. Lowenstein to understand his sister. It is through this retelling of the family’s story that we learn about Tom’s family. In addition to helping Lowenstein understand New York , Tom prepares Lowenstein’s son to play high school football and two later they have an affair. Sadly, for Lowestein, this affair gives Tom the confidence to go back home and fight for his wife and his family. It’s not much of a fight as his wife, a physician, discovers that her surgeon lover has many lovers. In the end of the book, the family is somewhat back together and they enjoy a picnic on a shrimp boat moored in the salt marsh, watching the sunset and the moon rises. There, at the end of the book, Tom says to himself a moving prayer: Savannah
I am Southern made and Southern broken, Lord, but I beseech you to let me keep what I have. Lord, I am a teacher and a coach. That is all and it is enough. (566)
I won’t go into all the details of the book, for I’d hate to give it all away. Let me point out that I found Luke Wingo’s character a lot like that of Hayduke in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang and its sequel, Hayduke Lives. I really liked Tom’s eccentric grandfather, a religious fanatic whose Good Friday Cross Walk was well known. When the cross got too heavy for him, he put a wheel on it, which he later saw as his downfall. When he died, Tom said, “The only word for goodness is goodness, and it is not enough.”
I enjoyed the book, although I did find Conroy’s use of adjectives a little over done. Conroy subscribes, I believe, to the school of “why use one adjective when five will do.” But this is good southern storytelling, which done rightly is never straightforward, you have to know about the family and the setting. Conroy touches on many topics in this book: differences of social classes, race relationships, war and peace, environmental issues, rape, sexuality, religion, mental illness, among others. It’s a challenge to deal with so much, but Conroy does a good job and I recommend his book.