I'm taking a day off from social, science, and arts commentary to share a few passages from the 1995 novel Beach Music, written by one of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy. The story is set partly in Rome, but mostly in South Carolina's low country, the broad coastal plain which parallels the Atlantic Ocean. Conroy's writing is stunning, passionate, and wide-ranging as he deals with "picking away at life's wounds with a sharp wit." Having spent a year living in Charleston, SC, I readily identify with the narrator's sometimes-conflicted love affair with the terrain, the climate, and the culture of that sensous place. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite passages from Beach Music ~
~ Her beauty had made her unaproachable, apart. She was one of those girls who pass through your life leaving secret wreckage, but no visible wake. You remember her, but for all the wrong reasons.
~ I didn't know that everything you do is dangerous -- everything -- the smallest, most inconsequential act can be the thing that brings you crashing to earth .... You're not supposed to see the signs. They're invisible and odorless and don't leave tracks. You don't even feel them until you find yourself on your knees weeping over their unbearable weight.
~ Paranoia has a sharper taste if the danger is real.
~ I'm romantic about people. I've got real self-control when it comes to rocks.
~ The mirror used to be my best friend. Now it is an assassin.
~ I'm an American and a free man and I was born into a democratic society and there's no goddamn law in the world that says I have to have a fucking thing to do with my weird-ass family.
~ The shinier, silk-tender air came streaming over me with each mile we traveled and I could smell my own boyhood sneaking up in a slow, purloined dream as I closed my eyes and let the chemistry of time allow me to repossess those chased-off, ghostly scents of my lost youth .... Because even beauty has its limits, I shall always remain a prisoner of war to this fragrant, voluptuous latitude of the planet, fringed with palms and green marshes running beside rivers for thirty miles at a time, and emptying out on low-lying archipelagoes running north and south along the coast of the Atlantic's grand appearance. The low country had laid its imprint on me like the head of some ancient king incised on a coin of pressed copper. The whole earth smelled as though a fleet of shrimp boats had returned from a day's work on tides of rosewater and eelgrass.
~ Life wounds me in the places only hope can reach.
~ Stories don't have to be true. They just have to help.
~ "It's dangerous to write about what you don't know," I said. Ledare got up to go and said, "It's dangerous not to."
~ You think you know what to look out for in life. You think your childhood teaches you all the traps you need to worry about. But that's not how it works. Pain doesn't travel in straight lines. It circles back around and comes up behind you. It's the circles that kill you.
~ Something terrible happens in everybody's life. Something out of the ordinary. I'm trying to raise you to be light on your feet. To be on your toes at all times, ready for the unexpected. You won't be able to prepare for it. It'll always take you by surprise.
~ The Vietnam War would be the only foreign war ever fought on American soil. All were free to choose sides. Bystanders were ridiculed and not tolerated. There were no survivors in the sixties, only casualties and prisoners of war and veterans who cried out in the dark.
~ [On dying:] You weep at the loss of so beautiful a world and all those parts you will never be able to play again. The dark takes on different meaning. Your body has begun to prepare you for the last completion, for the peace and generosity of silence.
~ "You ever touch me," Shyla said, "you'll be reading about yourself when they interview eunichs."
~ Same tribe. Both of them so full of love it causes an imbalance. They fall over with the unbearable weight of it. The fall becomes what they do best. They grow accustomed to great odds. Love floods them, overwhelms them, and makes them impossible to be around. They need love in equal proportion to what they throw off. Everyone disappoints them. Eventually, they die of the cold. They can never find the right angel.
~ Rome had taught me that beauty alone was sometimes enough; it had sheltered and nursed me and put me back on course .... I realized that words were sometimes nothing more than notes you wrote to your deepest self as you fought to articulate the splendor and the magic and the ineluctable sense of loss that you felt in the swift, disturbing hours.
Note: lest the above quotes lead you think that Beach Music is dark and weighty, please know that in some passages it is. But it is also a story of self-discovery, of reconnection to lost love, of passion, ambiguity, fear, pain and hope, painted with deft brush strokes in colors that will leave you breathless.