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Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Casual Critic — Pat Conroy's Beach Music

Expectation is an undervalued power of the human mind. Teachers who expect high standards from students often get quality work handed in; teachers who hate kids and think they're dumb usually get results suggesting their students are dumb.

Pat Conroy's Beach Music was recommended to me as a very funny story about brothers that are brutally sarcastic with each other. While it is, in fact, a story of five brothers to a large degree, there are so many other things going on that I often felt like I wished it would just get back to the brothers. That said, the story never really dragged, evidenced by the fact that I made it through the 767-page marathon.

Jack McCall returns home to say goodbye to his mother as she dies from cancer, and is forced to face a past he has willfully ignored since the suicide of his wife. His four rancorous brothers and their drunk of a father do everything they can to make his re-entry into the family difficult, while he copes with his former in-laws who challenged him for custody of his only daughter, a group of life-long friends destroyed by a tragic mistake, and the past that he blames for not allowing him to love his deceased wife enough and also led to her death.

Now you get why this novel is so damn long.

In all seriousness, I did feel Conroy dove into too many pasts in order to explain the death of Jack's wife, Shyla. The absolutely heartbreaking tales of the Holocaust that had been dumped on her as a child, however, were probably the most powerful things I've ever read on that part of history. The level of detail brought home the horror of it like nothing else in my experience.

The problem for me came when he offered McCall's mother's past, that of another Holocaust survivor, and his childhood friend, Jordan, as well as a subplot surrounding the group. All written very well, it just felt like a bit too much for one novel.

Jack McCall, the first-person narrator, eventually became a bit too sweet to bare. Possibly I was just tired of reading the same voice for such a long time, but he had a touch of the holier-than-thou in him, and his desire to keep his daughter in a cocoon got a bit grating.

Again, expectations may have hurt my reading of the novel. Exchanges between the brothers were hilarious at times, and their story seemed to deserve more of the focus – not that I wanted more pages! The ending of the subplot was brought about in unique fashion, but may have been wrapped up too neatly. The main ending was truly emotional, and added the value you wanted all along to get to.

Beach Music has some of the best writing I've read since starting The Casual Critic, yet a lack of focus hurts it a bit. Still, it's worth reading.

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