Triumph and Tragedy in Colleton, Carolina

SOUTHERNERS beware--The Prince of Tides, a novel by Pat Conroy, has no mercy from beginning to end. Conroy traces the disintegration and eventual triumphant coming together of a 20th century South Carolina shrimper's family in a masterpiece of reality, insanity and fantasy.

The Prince of Tides

By Pat Conroy

Houghton Mifflin

$4.95 664 pp.

The 664-page novel beautifully encompasses the absolute horrors and utter joys of life, not just in the South, but everywhere. Incongruously packaged like a Harlequin romance with the author's name as large as the title, the issues that Conroy never allows to rest are ignorance, prejudice, and fear.

Employing images reminiscent of Stephen King, Conroy graphically depicts the horror of a tortured family. But his skill at imagery also provides passages of beauty, creating a world that is both light and dark, horrid and fantastical.

Holding together this overpowering imagery is the story of Tom Wingo, an unemployed coach and teacher, haunted by his childhood, frightened by his future, and struggling to understand the South.

"My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call," Tom begins as he narrates the tale of his Colleton, South Carolina family. An ill-fitting puzzle of contrasts, the prologue continues with a poignant description of a healthy childhood that Dr. Spock would have praised. "I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders," says Tom.

ALL seems well and good--until Tom, in a straightforward, unapologetic manner that characterizes the entire novel, relates the lurid tale of his punishment for the time, as a young child, that he killed the last bald-eagle in Colleton County "for pleasure, for the singularity of the act."

Henry Wingo, Tom's tight-lipped, hardworking father, made sure the offense would not be repeated. After forcing his son to roast and eat the bird's flesh, Henry continued the "expiation of sin," by having his son jailed and then making him wear a headdress of the eagle's feathers to school, "until it began to disintegrate feather by feather. Those feathers trailed me in the hallways of the school as though I were a molting, discredited angel." It is an image which remains with Tom--always threatening to define him.

With Tom's childhood set as a backdrop, the story begins with Tom emasculated and insecure, his marriage falling apart. When his children demand to know why their father always cooks dinner, Tom says to his wife, "I told you, Sallie...if you raise children in the South, you produce Southerners. And a Southerner is one of God's natural fools."

But a fool lives an unexamined life, and it is Tom's fate (and his eventual salvation) that he must confront his past and stop taking "refuge in the cold, lordly glooms of the unconscious."

The attempted suicide in New York City of his twin sister Savannah, a successful poet, shakes Tom free, enabling him to question his ingrained Southern ideals. The response of his mother Lila to the episode--a woman who defines for Tom all that is wrong with the South--serves as a metaphor for the South's need to mask tragedy, and the obstacles Tom must overcome. Lila herself cannot go to visit her daughter because she has a dinner party planned for that weekend. "She's in one of those silly states she goes into when she wants attention," says Lila, attributing her daughter's condition to a lack of salt in her diet.

Tom makes the trip North, where he meets Savannah's psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein, who stands as the antithesis of Colleton County. Throughout the slow and painful process of aiding Lowenstein in helping his sister, Tom reveals the terrible day that he, his mother and Savannah were raped by three escaped convicts. As if the rape of their person were not sufferance enough, the rape of their minds by their mother--who swears them to a pact of secrecy--only added to their torment.

Conroy systematically exposes rotting southern ideals and prejudices through Lowenstein's continuous probing. Slowly the mask is unpeeled. But The Prince of Tides is not a celebration of the ethos of New York City. For in the end, Tom returns to the South, this time content with himself, and conscious of the "demonology" of his youth. While by no means an autobiographical work, one gets the sense that Conroy is exploring his own relationship with the South. It is our good fortune that he has chosen to do so.