The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy

by Robert A. Parker

This 1986 work is not quite literature, but I am tempted to call it a great novel. Because it is so enjoyable—and I almost did not read it! It is a story of a family, of its Southern culture, and of madness. The narrator hero is Tom Wingo, shy and lacking in confidence in his youth, when much of the tale takes place, and a confident and mature football coach as he is telling his story. Tom has traveled to New York City as the novel begins because his twin sister Savannah, a young and successful poet, has attempted suicide once again. While there, he describes to Susan Lowenstein, Savannah’s psychiatrist, his own youth and the life that has formed himself and his sister, indeed his entire family. This tale, related in flashbacks, is the heart of the novel.

Tom’s family leads a fascinating life, and it represents both the major portion of the novel and its richest portion. It is rich because of Tom’s mother and father, his older brother Luke, his religious grandfather and his eccentric grandmother, as well as his twin sister. It is even richer because it captures the flavor of the small-town Colleton, SC, and contrasts it with the bustle of New York City. Savannah spends her life intent to get away from that town’s Southern culture, and Tom is unable to abandon it.

This has to be Conroy’s most ambitious novel, and, except for a small segment toward the end, he succeeds wonderfully. He does return to the violent, disciplined father of his earlier novels, but his portrait of Henry Wingo is nuanced, making him both a war hero and a dreamer who futilely seeks business opportunities that will make him rich. The author gives more effort, however, to the complexity of Tom’s mother, Lila Wingo, a woman who plans her every step and considers herself both perfect and superior to everyone else. A subplot follows her climb into the town’s upper crust.

And yet the heart of this novel is the relationship among Tom, Savannah, and Luke. They love each other and always support each other, whether their parents discipline them, Savannah attempts suicide, Tom thinks himself a failure at life, or Luke rebels against the government.

That rebellion is the only weak portion of the novel, as Luke retreats into the swamp to conduct a guerilla action against the federal takeover of his hometown. And this takes us out of the family story, even out of the clash of Northern and Southern cultures. Instead, the novel offers a brief, right-wing diatribe against nuclear war and governmental authority. It is even out of character for quiet, mild-mannered Luke. Of course, to balance the novel politically, there is a significant section when the football team Tom coaches rejects a black running back—until his speed helps them win a few games.

But it is the family story that makes this novel, plus its deeply felt portrait of the swamp, streams, and bay of the South Carolina low country, where Henry and his sons earn their living as shrimp-boaters and their reputation as less fortunate members of society. Mother Lila is in combat with that society, of course, as well as with her husband, and often with her children. Her children love her, however, even as she claims they do not. But her interesting portrait is really background to the children’s stories.

The primary portrait is of narrator Tom, who has a poor opinion of himself as a youth, but by the time he goes to New York to help Savannah he is much more aware of both his faults and his value. Estranged from his wife, whom he has discovered is having an affair, he still loves his three daughters, and feels a certain guilt when he is attracted to Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. We read to learn what will develop with Lowenstein, as he calls her, and find at the end a satisfying, if unusual in today’s terms, resolution.

Savannah herself is more real as a young girl yearning to escape what she considers a backward Southern culture and then fleeing to New York to be a poet. She is highly opinionated, and quite interesting to listen to. Luke is the quietest and steadiest of the group, making his final actions more surprising, even unconvincing, although he does lead an escapade in which the three kidnap a porpoise from an aquarium and then release it.

The most interesting scenes in this novel often evolve around Tom’s conversations, often adversarial. Such as with his parents and siblings, but also with Lowenstein and even such minor characters as wealthy Reese Newberry, who is trying to buy up all of the town of Colleton, and both Lowenstein’s son Bernard and her violinist husband, Henry Woodruff in New York.

I was particularly dawn in by Tom’s witty, cynical observations. They evolve out of his early disillusion with his own character. He calls himself “’the most dishonest person I’ve ever met. I never know exactly how I feel about something.” But these conversations also work because they turn in unexpected directions, consistent with each character, and the others often make excellent responses to Tom’s frequently sarcastic opinions.

The novel’s movement from the present in New York to different pasts is effective, even when the shift occurs at suspenseful moments, but it also makes one aware of the author’s technique. And toward the end, it is somewhat confusing regarding the timing of Luke’s fate, Tom’s fate, and Savannah’s fate. Also notable is the absence of Luke in the later time frame, and the hints that something dire will soon be told. For a while, it appears to be referring to the simultaneous rapes of Lila, Savannah, and Tom, but that highly dramatic event is only an anti-climax.

Some critics have felt that too much happens in this novel. As Gail Goodman wrote in The New York Times, “ In The Prince of Tides, the smart man and serious writer in Pat Conroy have been temporarily waylaid by the bullying monster of heavy-handed, inflated plot and the siren voice of Mother South at her treacherous worst—embroidered, sentimental, inexact, telling it over and over again as it never was.” Except, I would argue that this is the South as it was to these particular characters at this time. It is a convincing South, a South attempting to preserve a way of life that belongs to the past, and a family of the South caught up in contradictions that follow their recognition of a changing world.

To me, this novel works, except for Luke’s melodramatic moment at the end. And it then recovers with a tender Epilogue that convincingly portrays a Tom who can love two women. Because each has met a need he has had in a certain period of his life, and he will not forgot this.

The Prince of the title is Luke, even if he is not the main character. But he is a major character, and he stands for the preservation of the local culture and local environment that is so lovingly evoked here. Moreover, the book’s climax that revolves around his actions will lead Savannah to create a new book of poems in his name.

While Henry Wingo converts to Catholicism when he is saved by a priest in World War II, neither religion nor Catholicism play a major role here. The closest is when Amos Wingo, Tom’s grandfather, parades up and down the local streets with a cross over his shoulder on Good Friday. But he is regarded as an eccentric by the community. He is also regarded as a good man, when he takes back his wife after she has left him for another man and then toured the world until she runs out of money. Amos is included more for Southern flavor than religious flavor, therefore, and Tom’s own faith never becomes a part of his failure to relate emotionally to his wife or a part of his success in relating to Lowenstein. Indeed, Tom’s emotional evolution into a caring rather than a cynical person, as a result of the events depicted in this novel, helps to bring an overall unity and resolution to this work.

To sum up, I found this a rich and entertaining novel. I relish those works in which a mature narrator looks back on a troubled and uncertain youth, and tries to make sense of it. I also enjoy the clash of cultures, here that of provincial South Carolina and sophisticated New York, although it is more from Tom’s viewpoint than Savannah’s, because his is more a search for values in the difference, whereas Savannah clearly made her decision for New York even before she left.

Yes, this novel piles incident after incident, from a revenging tiger to a saved porpoise, from a downed pilot to a downtown Good Friday walk with the Cross, from a manipulating mother to a failing and criminal father, from the feminist grandmother to the socially ambitious mother, from hatred of one’s parents and one’s culture, to love, and then from the evocation of Southern swamp country to sophisticated New York offices and restaurants.

Even if Tom himself says that what he is relating is a “grotesque family melodrama,” the reader who buys into this tale as I do will appreciate the rich imagination that creates worlds of hate, ambition, violence, cunning, despair, and denial, alongside worlds of love, hope, courage, integrity, and this family’s search for self-acceptance.

This may be Conroy at the peak of his powers, offering his final exploration of a disruptive family. It does leave me uncertain, however, about whether or not to pursue his works further. (April, 2015)

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