Friday, April 17, 2009

Empty at the Beach - Book #6

Pat Conroy's Beach Music is the story of Jack McCall, a man trying to raise his young daughter after his wife's suicide.  He flees his small, wealthy South Carolina town for Rome with the hope of escaping his family, his friends, and his past. When an emergency beckons him home, he is forced to deal with his past. This past includes high school friends who became college friends and their dysfunctional families, his own dysfunctional family, a near death experience at sea, the Vietnam War, and the Holocaust.  He also has to face the present, which includes terrorism, insanity, cancer, Hollywood, harboring a criminal and a new love.  This book is chock full of themes.  Why then, the emptiness?  The book was just too full.  

Consider these sentences:

"Though both of us were glad of the armistice, neither of us knew what strategies would lead us around the impasse of distrust and hatred that we both felt whenever our eyes met."  
"A breeze lifted off the ocean and several hundred notes from the wind chimes tinkled like ice shaken in silver cups.  They altered the mood of the forest the way an orchestra does a theater when it begins tuning up its instruments."

Those are beautifully written, aren't they?  I certainly could not have come up with material as good. However, this 800 small-font page book is covered in sentences such as these.  It is so full of similes and analogies that the good sentences get lost in a sea of adjectives.  It is like a salad with too many herbs; the good flavors get so mixed up you don't know they are good anymore.

When Jack returns to his childhood home, he finds his beloved books in the attic.  He thinks, "A good movie had never once affected me in the same life-changing way a good book could. Books had the power to alter my view of the world forever.  A great movie could change my perceptions for a day."  We would be hard pressed to find a disagreement with that view.  Beach Music wasn't a book that had the power to alter my view of the world forever, but there was a chapter that did.  I have read good amount of material regarding the Holocaust.  I have an acquaintance who was an integral part of setting up and opening the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  I thought I had a fairly good handle on the horror of that time in history. Chapter 34 of Beach Music made me realize that I really don't have a depth of understanding at all.  In that Chapter, Jack's father-in-law describes his experience of living as a Jew in Kironittska, Ukraine during the Holocaust.  I can honestly say that I've never been so horrified by anything I've ever read as I was when I read this account.  And, I'm assuming, based on the credit he gives some Holocaust survivors at the beginning of the book, that the account is based on truth.  Some startling (that's putting it mildly) quotes from Chapter 34 follow:

"Ah!  The Holocaust, Jack.  Yes, that word again.  That stupid word, that empty vessel.  I am so sick of that word.  It is an exhausted word that means nothing, and we Jews have shoved it down the world's throat and dared anyone to use it improperly.  One poor word cannot bear that much weight, yet this poor word must stagger under that load forever...Holocaust.  One English word should not be required to carry so many human hearts."

"In Yiddish, he keeps telling his sons that Yahweh will protect them.  But Yahweh is taking a long vacation, far away from his chosen in people in those years.  He was not in Eastern Europe, Jack, of that I am certain."

"You think you have heard and imagined the worst that can happen to the ghetto Jews.  Then something else happens so horrible that you shut down completely.  You pray that you can imagine nothing.  Your prayers are answered.  You learn that evil is bottomless.  The despair I feel in my stomach is like a paralysis."

"Despair is a daily bread and there is plenty enough to go around."

"We are not survivors.  None of us.  We were dice.  We were thrown, hurled into the mouth of hell, and we learned that a human life was as worthless as a horsefly...Dice are simply thrown, cast into the abyss.  I can tell you how to find your way around in nothingness.  I have the map in my possession, Jack.  All the street names are covered with blood and the streets are all cobbled with the skulls of Jews.  You are a Christian, Jack, and should feel right at home in this place.  I hate your Christian face.  I am sorry.  I always have and I always will."

Those are just some thoughts that are woven throughout the story that Jack's father-in-law tells in Chapter 34.  The story is stunning and it needs to be read and remembered.  But it gets lost in all of the rest of the book's sub-plots.  I wonder if the author felt like he needed to nest this description of the Holocaust into some other themes because he was trying to give Jack's father-in-law a happy ending. We can see no happy ending to the Holocaust.  The story, though, needs to be told.  And we need to listen and ponder and think and act so that the story is not forgotten.  Go to your library, find Beach Music, and turn to Chapter 34.  Read all 35 pages of it and be empty.


  1. I am glad you got what I wanted you to get out of the book. Chapter 34 has stuck with since I read the book long ago and has reminded me of the darkness that exists in the world and the importance of fighting it wherever it is seen.

    Like a roll of film that you took with many bad pictures, it is the one picture that comes out well that makes the bad ones worth it, in reference to your thoughts that there were too many distractions in his work.

  2. You know, you are right in that "We can see no happy ending to the Holocaust. The story, though, needs to be told. And we need to listen and ponder and think and act so that the story is not forgotten."And yet. . . sometimes it is just -too much- to hear, to know, to read, to remember.

    I'm glad I read your review. I think I'll put off reading the book (and chapter) for awhile, though. File it away to remember in the future.

  3. TulipGirl-

    I was hoping that you'd weigh in with some comments. Is Kironittska anywhere near where you lived? Do you know anything about the Nazi occupation in that area?