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Sunday, July 16, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Southern Saga -- Conroy's `Beach Music' Another Dark Journey Home

"Beach Music" by Pat Conroy Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $27.50

Pat Conroy took up residence way out on a limb a long time ago.

He's a lot of things, most of them unforgivable: a florid-writing, romantic Southerner who laughs at all he holds dear, picking away at life's wounds with a sharp wit. He breaks the silence of every private hell in which he's done time, telling tales of the respected military man who beats his son, society pillars who drink to excess, whore and murder while counting on others to keep their secrets. His middle-age heroes look back on lives of emotional wreckage, mourning the loss of women they've worshiped but usually failed.

In real life, his first marriage collapsed in the painful aftermath of his 1976 novel, "The Great Santini," which was based on his childhood. His father says he's a liar. And his sister stopped talking to him after the publication of his last novel, "The Prince of Tides," in 1986.

Conroy's response has been to move even farther out on the limb, with his first novel in nine years, "Beach Music."

The hero, Jack McCall, is Conroy's familiar Bad Boy, more articulate and flamboyant than ever, telling stories out of school about his beautiful and broken mother, drunken father and four wild brothers. Jack has fled Charleston, S.C., after the suicide of his beloved wife, Shyla, taking his young daughter with him to Rome and his life there as a writer.

But it takes more than an ocean and a lifetime of resentment to keep a good Southern boy away when Mama is dying.

Dark pasts revisited

After five years in Italy, the trip back to the South Carolina coast with 8-year-old Leah piles up a lot more than frequent-flier miles. Along the way, Jack learns more than any son would want to know about his mother's horrible past and about the darkness that closed in on Shyla, pushing her to take her own life.

The painful journeys of others - his childhood circle, torn apart by one friend's treachery during the Vietnam War years; the Holocaust, which left his wife's parents unstable enough to pass their illness on to their only daughter - are all landmarks that Jack visits on this latest trip home.

Not the stuff of light reading.

But once again Conroy has managed to work his black-humored magic. As readers of his earlier books, especially "The Lords of Discipline" and "The Prince of Tides," know, his reasoning goes like this: If you're going to tell a horrifying story, make damn sure some of your characters are wonderful, smart-mouthed survivors.

Irreverent, often hilarious dialogue is Conroy's stock in trade, and it has never been better than in "Beach Music." To be a McCall is to be constitutionally incapable of passing up a chance to get in the last word.

And whether firing off a one-liner or summing up his generation in a couple of paragraphs, Jack McCall knows how to hold court:

"The graduating class of 1966 . . . There were no signposts or catechisms or rules of the road to help us navigate. . . . We were shot out indiscriminately into the trickery of the slippery, rampaging decade, and the best we could do was cover our eyes and ears and genitalia like pangolins or armadillos and make sure our soft underbellies were not exposed for either inspection or slaughter. . . .

"Though I still consider the sixties the silliest and stupidest of times, I will admit, under pressure, that some of it was wonderful, even magnificent."

Childhood horrors

Much of Jack's story looks back at these times as he is reluctantly drawn into the search for a friend who was forced underground during the Vietnam War. He must also face Shyla's parents - who want to see their grandchild, Leah - and in their home, Jack hears long-hidden stories of the devastating Holocaust journeys that crippled Shyla's parents and scarred her own childhood.

Conroy's narrative remains strong down all the paths that "Beach Music" takes. But he is most riveting when he dwells on Jack's rough childhood. In this, he is writing what he knows best.

Fiction is rarely made up of whole new cloth. But at 49, Conroy remains unusual in the extent of his blunt honesty about the childhood that feeds his stories.

The oldest of seven children and a rootless military brat, he has said in more than one interview that his father's biggest mistake was letting a novelist grow up in his home, one who "remembered every single violent act."

What Conroy became was a person in love with excess: the elaborate etiquette of Southern society, the secrecy and rituals of the military, and, always, the complex web of love and despair that traps the child of a violent parent. Conroy is a giant romantic who matches his language to the size of his obsessions.

That style has exposed Conroy and his 628-page book as a target for some critics, who decry his larger-than-life approach. The narrator of "Beach Music" would have a ready answer for that.

"Stories don't have to be true," Jack McCall tells his daughter. "They just have to help."

CONROY IN SEATTLE --------------------------------- Pat Conroy will read from "Beach Music" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the First United Methodist Church, 811 Fifth Ave. ($5, 624-6600). He will autograph books afterward at the Elliott Bay Book Co.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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