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Richard Eder

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy (Houghton Mifflin: $19.95; 578 pp.)

October 19, 1986|Richard Eder

Inside this fat book, a thin book is struggling to get out. It never does, but from time to time, we glimpse an elegant ankle, a sinewy wrist and the flash of eyes alive with wit and compassion.

Pat Conroy has an irreplaceable sense of a South Carolina tidewater town. He knows its eccentricities, its individualism, and the way tartness cuts the appealing flamboyance of its language. In such a gifted context, he places a story of pain and violence among family members and generations.

All this is quite a lot. But it is not enough for the author. He has made a saga out of it; he has tried to force the quirks into universals; he has taken his fiddle-tune and set it for full symphony orchestra, with kettle drums and a thunder machine.

"The Prince of Tides" is larger than life, which can be quite bad for life.

At its core, and perhaps at its most effective, "Prince" is the story of Tom Wingo, a high school English teacher and football coach. He presents himself as a middling sort, too much caught up by the allure and mediocrity of small-time Southern life to get much above himself; but taking pride in his capacity for kindness and endurance. "Strength was my gift; it was also my act," he says. The pride is tinged with irony; and irony, when it has a chance to show itself, is Tom's best quality as a literary character.

For most of the time, though, it doesn't show. It is submerged by his grandiloquent vision of himself, his parents, brother Luke and sister Savannah--and beyond that, of Colleton, their doomed fishing community--as emblematic of the whole terror and grandeur of human destiny.

Most of the book consists of Tom recounting the troubled and melodramatic story of his family, from the time he was a child up until the present. "The story of the Wingos is one of horror, grotesquerie and tragedy," he announces; and that pretty much signals the book's preponderant tone and quality of writing.

Henry Wingo, the father, is a shrimp-boat captain; reasonably prosperous but undermined by his own impractical business schemes, one of which lands him in jail for drug smuggling. Lila, the mother, is insecure, romantic, intoxicated with words and possessed of a deadly social ambition.

The children grow up amid their father's alternating warmth and near murderous violence. There are several scenes in which Lila or Luke keep Henry at bay with a knife or a gun. At one point, Lila shoots him, though not fatally.

There is other violence. Early on, when Henry is off at war, an enormous bearded criminal repeatedly tries to break into the house to rape Lila. He is finally turned away when the children empty several jars of wasps on him.

Years later, the same man and two other escaped convicts come back. This time they succeed in raping not only Lila but Tom and Savannah as well. If this seems like far-fetched and gratuitous escalation, so is the reprisal. Luke unleashes a circus tiger that Henry had bought to promote a gas station. The three intruders are variously bitten, clubbed and shot to death.

Naturally, the children are marked by this kind of thing, as well as by half a dozen family and community dramas and intrigues. Luke, big, silent and instinctive--he is genuinely witty, as well, and quite appealing--ends up as a lone guerrilla, patrolling the marshes of Colleton County, which have been expropriated and evacuated by the government to house a string of nuclear power plants. At the end, he is shot down after sabotaging various bits of equipment.

Savannah goes off to New York where, between suicide attempts, she becomes not merely a poet but, as the book has it, one of the finest female poets of the day. Bravely, but not wisely, Conroy quotes some of her work, viz.: "There is screaming and grief in the mansions / I blaze with a deep sullen magic, / smell lust like a heron on fire. . . ." She not only writes this way; she is written about this way.

Inflation is the order of the day. The characters do too much, feel too much, suffer too much, eat too much, signify too much and above all, talk too much. And, as with the classical American tomato, quantity is at the expense of quality.

Repeatedly, Conroy will bring off a well-told episode and then smother it. A black football player on Tom's high school team, the first in the county's history, scores a rousing touchdown. We are promptly told that "somewhere in that seven-second dash, resistance to integration moderated just a little bit in Colleton."

A marine biology team tries to capture the white porpoise that has become the town's mascot. Shrimp boats and townspeople play a comical game of resistance. But when the porpoise is caught and taken to Miami, the Wingo family expedition to rescue it is stagy and contrived.

Apart from inflation, and the sea of pretentious writing that surrounds a modest archipelago of wit, Conroy's method of telling his story is considerably labored.

Tom comes to New York after Savannah's latest suicide attempt, and her female psychiatrist, Dr. Lowenstein, has him in for a series of sessions to tell about the past. The device is wooden, but it is better than the perpetual dueling between Lowenstein, as sophisticated New Yorker, and Tom, as earthy Southerner. Lowenstein, who fails to come to life, has two settings: hot and cold. "Hot" leads to fervently described and utterly undemonstrated love making, as well as a number of gourmet meals.

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