When I heard this weekend that author Pat Conroy had passed away, I remembered something I wrote in 2013 when I had just finished reading The Prince of Tides. The piece was originally called Unimagining Literature with Google Maps. I was inspired to write it after reading the last pages of The Prince of Tides when Tom is sailing out of Charleston Harbour. Here it is:
One of my pleasures in reading is to meander through a genre and see where serendipity leads me. I’m an unashamed fan of James Lee Burke, the veteran novelist whose books lay bare the seamy and steamy underside of the southern states of the US through his flawed anti-heroes – Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcell, Hackberry Holland and the rest of the sweating, gun toting, self-doubting crew. Even the women in Burke’s novels seem to have hairy chests. The landscape of the Dave Robicheaux novels is the worn-out, waterlogged settlements of New Iberia in Louisiana. I’ve never visited this region, and so I conjured up from Burke’s rich prose my personal imagined picture of Robicheaux’s world. It looked a bit like Bali. I was hooked and began to plan my literary tour of the Deep South.
Reality intruded when I looked up New Iberia on Google Maps. The images showed something quite different: Dead straight roads passing through an utterly flat green landscape, grey skies. Suddenly I didn’t want to go there anymore.
Despite the let-down, Burke piqued my curiosity and I began to follow leads to other writers of the South. I discovered a great deal of collateral detail: Tabasco Sauce is made in Avery Island, Louisiana; there is something called cracker culture, and it’s got nothing to do with biscuits; Mofro is a really interesting band. Moving up to Oklahoma, I found Glenn Ford in the 1960 movie Cimarron.
The two highlights of my Deep South reading were Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides (which most people probably know as the film version). Look Homeward, Angel is a great rambling, untidy, deeply moving mess of a book, which follows the rise and fall of the desperately alcoholic Oliver Gant, his sons, and his calculating wife. It took me months to read it in fits and starts, but at the end I felt the same feeling of emotional exhaustion that I had from Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot.
Pat Conroy’s novel continues the despair and unresolved angst that seems to pervade the literature of the South: The terribly damaged Tom Wingo struggles to come to terms with his equally damaged sister Savannah and his brother Luke. He finds some resolution at the end of the book, and this state of mind is conveyed metaphorically as he sails through the South Carolina islands following the course he had taken many times with his father. Now here’s where it gets weird: I’m reading this on my Kindle and my hand is twitching to open Google maps. I weaken and open the laptop, and for the next half an hour I drift through the sea coast of South Carolina sitting behind Wingo on his boat while I watch with Google Maps from the shore. It was a very serene and beautiful – if peculiar – reading experience.
So are our imagined visions somehow violated when technology virtually (and I mean it in both senses) places us in almost any street in the world? I’m not sure: It’s an experience that we already know from film versions of books, but of course these films are themselves artistic interpretations, and not in the same realm as photographs. I tried making a quick scorecard of film or TV versions of novels that have (a) complemented and (b) violated my imagining of the novel: Pride and Prejudice: I can’t think of a film version that comes remotely close to affecting my enjoyment of the novel; McEwan’s Atonement: Hmm, it nibbled at the edges; The BBC series of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong: Oh dear.
The one that kept popping into my head, however was the 1969 movie Justine, based on part of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, which I drooled over in the early eighties. I read the Quartet before discovering the movie, but once I’d watched Justine, the character of Pursewarden was defined retrospectively and for all time thence by Dirk Bogarde. In fact, the movie Justine caused me to reimagine at least part of the book.
I’m reading James Lee Burke’s Feast Day of Fools right now. It’s his most gaunt and spare novel, set in a desert landscape on the Southwest Texas border with Mexico. I’m using a tablet now, so the Maps app is just a twitching finger away.
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