The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy is an unforgettable book. I read it for the first time in the nineties, just before the movie came out. And the movie definitely left a lasting impression too —all that gorgeous South Carolina salt marsh country, all watery tall grass and shrimp boats moving through it. So when I got to South Carolina for this literary road trip, I knew I wanted to re-read this novel. It had already left its mark. And I knew that this novel would evoke the essential feel of the low country of South Carolina better than anything I could imagine. I knew it even before I cracked open the cover this time.
From the first page, set on a South Caroline sea island, Conroy’s descriptions dropped me right into the salt water and had me swimming through the fishy, primordial humid air. I remember that the action of the story revolved around a twisted Southern family, but I had forgotten just how brutal the Wingos of Colleton had been to each other. And the language is so lyric and lush. Only rarely could I feel the hard work of the writer crafting those marvelous poetic sentences. Most of the time I just rolled with them, vivid portraits of life growing up in that small island in the south:
The island country where I grew up was a fertile, semitropical archipelago that gradually softened up the ocean for the grand surprise of the continent that followed. Melrose was only one of sixty sea islands in Colleton County. . . . The other sea islands, like Melrose, enscarved by vast expanses of marshland, were the green sanctuaries where brown and white shrimp came to spawn in their given seasons. . . .
. . . the river was panther-colored at dawn and it sang to the town in soft canticles of those tides that bore us gloriously out toward the breakers beyond the most beautiful sea islands in the world.
The prologue begins with this sentence: My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call. Lovely. But the action of the novel begins with a phone call from Tom Wingo’s mother, a call to action for Tom to head to New York where his twin sister, Savannah, is suffering in a mental health facility. She has attempted, again, to kill herself. Once he arrives in New York, Tom tells stories of his childhood to Savannah’s psychiatrist to help the doctor understand the experiences that have brought her to the brink of suicide. While, admittedly, Conroy is adept at showing us a sliver of life in New York — his sister’s apartment near Sheridan Square, the exquisite dining experiences at the best restaurants in the world, the unsurpassed art and music venues —they do not resonate for me quite like the natural beauty of Melrose Island.
And Conroy is a master of suspense. Early on, we learn that the story he’s telling starts out “before Luke.” We wonder first, who is Luke and once we’ve established Luke as Tom’s eldest sibling, we wonder, through all of the fantastic stories of their youth, running wild on the island, shrimping with their father, growing up with a tiger as a pet/mascot, the terrifying experience of being stalked by an evil giant, their high school years of football and the tight bond that exists between them, we are occasionally reminded of Luke. We know that something terrible has happened to Luke and we keep reading, not only because we are fascinated by this family, but also because we need to know what happened to Luke that could possibly be worse, more shocking, than the beatings and cruelty that is the very fiber that weaves this family together.
As we come to know the Wingos, we come to understand just how damaged Tom and his twin sister have become. First there’s Henry Wingo, twisted family patriarch. Conroy describes Henry as a typical southern man, the product of his birthplace. And the more I read about Henry, the more I think, this man cannot be typical. He’s exceptional in his cruelty. But Conroy suggests that simply being a male in the South explains this brutal behavior. It’s as if Conroy, through Tom, wants us to forgive his father Henry because he just can’t help himself. Tom’s mother, who has suffered greatly at the hands of her husband, makes excuses for him too, but different excuses. She tells Tom that his father can’t help himself because his own mother deserted him when he was a boy. She says, “Your grandmother created a crime against nature. . . . you can trace all his problems back to that day he woke up and found that he no longer had a mama to feed and care for him. That’s why he’s mentally ill. That’s why he acts like a beast sometimes. . . “
And, too, Tom’s heartbreakingly beautiful mother, Lila, married too young to the once charming but increasingly brutal Henry Wingo, is also a product of the South. Lila Wingo grew up poor. Her main goal in life is to become rich, to enjoy all the privileges of wealth. She tries so hard to become part of the local upper class in Colleton that it’s heartbreaking. At first, I think that the real villain in the novel is meant to be Tom’s dad, but the deeper I delve into the narrative, the more I think his mother is even more complicit in the Wingo family tragedy. Lila appears to love her children but she allows them to be beaten by their father and then she lies about it. The lies and secrecies are what really destroy each member of this family.
Ultimately, Conroy believes that it is geography, the South itself, which has shaped and wounded the Wingos: “We were born to a house of complication, drama and pain. We were typical southerners. In every southerner, beneath the veneer of cliché lies of much deeper motherlode of cliché. But even cliché is overlaid with enormous power when a child is involved.”
And this reminds me of the difference between the North and South as described by someone I know well who has moved to a different southern state: “In the South they have what they call civility, which is what we call hypocrisy.” Another chiché, of course, but one with which, I believe, Conroy would agree.