Pebbles in the shoes, sand in the sandwiches

Robert Winder praises another wave of purple prose from the man who brought us 'The Prince of Tides'; Beach Music by Pat Conroy Doubleday, pounds 15.99

Whoever it was who said that all unhappy families are alike obviously hadn't met Pat Conroy. The man who put the south into South Carolina (and the man who once said that being born into an unhappy family was the best thing that could happen to a writer), has now produced four novels, all of which feature the same resonantly miserable set of parents and kids.

In The Great Santini the father was a shit-kicking Marine Colonel, and the mother was a honey-smooth southern beauty who hid her contribution to child abuse behind a sugary, let's-pretend insistence on fine manners. The same characters form the background to The Lords of Discipline, a stirringly crude and funny tribute to the corrupting values of The Citadel, a fierce military college in Charlestown. It turned out to be prophetic: the plot concerned the hounding of the college's first black recruit, and foretold the experience of The Citadel's first woman cadet, who fought a court case to gain admission, only to be drummed out by the fearful gauntlet of terror the academy encourages.

The Prince of Tides, the irresistible saga that brought Conroy fame (five million copies in print), continued in the same vein. Dad's a brawling shrimper, and Mum is a snobby, duplicitous manipulator of her children. "This is not a happy story," Conroy begins. "I warn you." And he is true to his word. Every time you think the worst is over, a fresh storm thuds over the horizon. Somehow, in a full-throttle sentimental melodrama, Conroy found room for delicacy as well. None of the thunderclaps is as memorable as the faint, high-pitched squeak made by the rusty wheels of a tiger's cage as they are pushed through the night.

Conroy has always cheerfully emphasised that his subject is his own perplexed and incident-packed past. These people are not just slightly unhappy; they are heroically, passionately, suicidally desperate. And now he's at it again. Beach Music took a long time to write, and you can see why. It's huge. Normally books like this are described as sprawling, but this one doesn't sprawl, even though its principal charm is its enthusiastic verbosity. Conroy's characters are reliably salty talkers. They fill page after page with spicy abuse, and no one walks out in a huff. And they rarely fail to come up with the sort of lines you wish you'd thought of at the time. Insults fly across the room, fall on red ears, and bounce back with knobs on.

"I won't sit here," says one angry wife (a former Miss South Carolina) to the narrator (a food critic), "and let my husband be criticised by a fake sous-chef."

"I like you for your mind," the fake sous-chef replies. "I wept during that last beauty pageant when you played 'Ode to Joy' on the kazoo."

"You don't get it," says the husband in question. "I love you, Jack. That's what this is all about."

"Then it's going to be a long evening, pal."

Every conversation is conducted with this sort of venomous zest. The characters, even a lonely schizophrenic, bring exaggerated gifts to the business of hating friends and relatives. And they have plenty of cause. The hero (Jack) flees to Rome after his wife, whom everyone loves, commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. Before he leaves, he fights a furious custody case with his parents-in-law, who try to prevent him from raising his daughter (whom everyone loves). He's quite a guy: a guilt-ridden Catholic, jealous of protestants ("Anglicans only feel guilty when they forget to feed their polo ponies or cover their stock margins") and an anti-war monger who hates the sloppy Sixties. "I know I'm going to pay for this," he tells his daughter, apologising for his atheism. "You'll grow up without religious roots, and when you're 18 I'll find you dressed in saffron Hare Krishna robes with your head shaved, chanting Hindi, and playing a tambourine in Atlanta airport."

But after many years he is forced to return to Charlestown by the impending death of his mother, and starts confronting the old demons. These include: the Vietnam war, the Russian persecution of the Jews, a terrorist attack, Auschwitz, the death of wives and the treachery of best friends.

Conroy is not shy. There are fight scenes, death scenes, love scenes and laugh scenes. Oh, and there's a seafaring adventure involving squalls, giant boat-crushing rays and (right on cue) a hammerhead shark. Throughout, Jack cooks meals that are usually "perfect", though sometimes merely "fabulous".

If Conroy had less nerve (and a less inventive lyrical strain) this could be the purest schlock. But purple suits him, and he sensibly wears little else. He puts his head down and charges straight at cliches, overpowering them with a superb lack of embarrassment and a sure sense of the best way to jerk a tear or a smile. The book perhaps lacks the coherence of The Prince of Tides - perhaps, in truth, it does sprawl a little. And one senses at the end something out-of-kilter in the reverential penance paid to the dying mother. This novel, unlike its predecessors, aims at atonement and reconciliation, and for Conroy's many fans it is probably enough that his characters merely survive. Even the bum notes are played with hectic enthusiasm. Size isn't everything, but it's quite enough to be going on with.

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