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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Prince of Tides

“These are the quicksilver moments of my childhood I cannot remember entirely. Irresistible and emblematic, I can recall them only in fragments and shivers of the heart.”
Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides    
My first Pat Conroy book was The Prince of Tides. Someone recommended it - no, I was told that I needed to read it - about a month prior, but that was pre-Kindle days for me, so I put it on the list, and the next time I popped into B&N, I snagged it. I remember that I was half-reading several books at the time, and that, because it was summer, I managed a chapter of this one here and a chapter of that one there without any consistency. That night, I opened The Prince of Tides assuming I'd manage a few paragraphs and then grow too sleepy to continue.
I was wrong. I was very wrong.
I burned through that 704 page book with the particular speed that accompanies unputdownable, beautifully written novels: you hate to keep turning the pages without savoring the language, but you can't stop. It was the sort of book that locks you into its world, so that, away from it, scenes replay and lines of text loop through your mind. Finally, I was done, and closing the back cover left me feeling hollow, a little shell-shocked, and yet grateful for what I'd just read. It was the sort of book that expands your workspace as an author; widens your desk, deepens those file drawers, adds new tabs to your mental references. The sort of book that encourages us to "go there" with our art. To have faith in our own perspective. Gives us the boost we need to walk bravely forth as our own messed up selves and tell the stories that mean something to us, and damn what anyone might say about them.
It is not a comfortable book, nor a warm one, though there are moments of pure warmth, capturing the sunlight like smooth, jewel-toned rocks on the beach. It is a dark, and heavy, and violent, sometimes vicious book. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes horrifying, sometimes depressing. Punctuated with the language, and the imagery, and the heady scents of the South. The most disturbing scenes I've ever read are in that book, stamped in vivid ink on my imagination. Caesar the tiger, for one. There are scenes that make you feel as if you're watching something you shouldn't; that you're intruding upon the sad, secret dinner conversations of people who don't want you there. And yet you return to them, again and again.
This is the thing about Pat Conroy: I often disagree vehemently with his characters. And that makes the books all the more successful, as art, because it isn't important that you agree with a character, only that you hear them, and understand them. It's the same with real life: agreement is never a guarantee, only kindness, and understanding, and small graces. The best stories can't guarantee you comfort or flattery; the best stories tell you something true, without flinching.
Rest in peace, Mr. Conroy. May new readers discover the joys of your words. May writers heed the rich lessons. You will be missed.

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