At times, when I’ve read the work of novelist Pat Conroy, I recoil at what sometimes seems like purple prose, yet I have turned the page, again and again, to sample a writer with as marvelous a sense of place as any I’ve come across in fiction today. This is a fair sample, from what is still probably his bestselling novel, The Prince of Tides (1985):
“To describe our growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater. My soul grazes like a lamb on the beauty of indrawn tides.”
None of that, however, prepared me for the experience of viewing Beaufort, S.C., the place that, he has said, was “the first town that ever seemed like home” to this child of a Marine Corps fighter pilot. Even the photo I took, when I stopped there on the last day of my vacation two and a half weeks ago, only begins to give a clue of what it’s like to stand by its shores, with gracious antebellum homes shaded by massive Spanish moss at your back, the smells from the tide before you, and the sea spreading out just beyond the marsh.
No wonder Conroy, after a nomadic life, still felt the call of home here, where he has returned to live.