1. About the Author and His Work
2. About the Novel and the Guide
3. Questions for Discussion
4. An excerpt from Beach Music
About the Author and His Work
The first of seven children, Pat Conroy was born in 1945 in Atlanta, Georgia,
to a career military officer and a Southern beauty. The family moved many
times, necessitating frequent school changes as well. While still a student at
the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, he wrote and
published his first book, The Boo.
After graduation, Conroy taught English in Beaufort, where he met and married a
widow of the Vietnam War with two children. Accepting a job teaching
underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island,
he was fired after a year for his unconventional teaching practices. With the
publication of The Water Is Wide in 1972, he evened the score by
exposing the racism and appalling conditions that his students endured. The
book won a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was
made into the film Conrack.
Following the birth of a daughter, the Conroys moved to Atlanta, where he wrote
his first novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. This
autobiographical work, exploring the conflicts of his childhood, was also made
into a film. The ensuing crisis caused by the book's publication led not only
to his own divorce, but to that of his parents as well. His mother sent a copy
of the book to the judge in her divorce trial as a form of "evidence" against
The Lords of Discipline was published in 1980. The novel, another that
was made into a film, exposed the Citadel's harsh military discipline, racism,
Conroy remarried and moved to Rome, where he began The Prince of Tides.
Published in 1986 to reviews that immediately acknowledged him as a master
storyteller, as well as a poetic and gifted prose stylist, it quickly became
his most successful book to date. With over five million copies in print--along
with yet another highly successful film version--this novel has earned him an
international reputation. Indeed, it is one of the most beloved novels of
Beach Music is Conroy's sixth book.
At present, he divides his time between San Francisco and South Carolina.
About the Novel
The appearance in print of any new work by a well-loved author who has been
silent for nine years is always cause for a celebration. When the author is Pat
Conroy, however, and the book is Beach Music, it becomes an occasion for
The novel tells of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the
trauma and painful memory of his young wife's suicide leap off a bridge in
South Carolina. The story takes place in South Carolina and Rome, then reaches
back in time to the Vietnam War era and the horrors of the Holocaust.
It is a novel that concerns itself with the loss of innocence. It is about the
acquisition of self-knowledge and about learning to accept where we come from.
It is about the eternal quest for forgiveness--seeking it in others, finding it
in ourselves--so that we can begin to live again. Ultimately, it is about
reclaiming the past in order to prepare a background on the canvas of the
future from which hope can finally flourish.
Remembrance. Reconciliation. Redemption.
With resonant prose and unmatched insight, Conroy throws open all of the doors
and windows on the human condition, revealing to us with crystal clarity the
perils of the war without as well as the war within.
Questions for Discussion
What's past is prologue.
--William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ii, 1, 253
1. Conroy's fiction has always been imbued with cadences particular to the
South, and Beach Music is no exception. How much do you feel that the
narrative voice is both affected and informed by place? If we removed all
references to the South from this work, do you believe that you would be able
to situate it geographically based solely on voice and style alone? If so, what
are the salient features that make this a particularly Southern novel, even
though much of the action takes place abroad?
2. The novel repeatedly points out the difficulty of maintaining any sort of
faith in the face of great despair. Following his mother's death, Max Rusoff
finds himself "cursing God's name and cursing him especially for making people
hopeless before he graciously allowed them to die" (180). It cannot be argued
against that there is an ample, abundantly sad beauty to the world that Conroy
reveals, but is there any hope here, and if so, where does it make itself
evident? How can we retain faith and hope against the catastrophic backdrop of
events in our own present world (e.g., Croatia, Rwanda, Oklahoma City)?
3. A case can be made that laughter, in the McCall family, functions as the
ultimate coping mechanism--but one with a definite downside. Jack concedes: "We
used laughter as both a weapon and a vaccine" (206). Can you isolate instances
in the novel where a character utilizes laughter when another coping mechanism
might be more effective?
4. It is patent in every phrase and sentence that Jack both reveres and reviles
the institution of family. On the one hand, it is understandable that after the
pain of the custody trial, he would want to remove both himself and Leah from
the association of his in-laws. But what of his own family? What evidence is
there to explain his refusal to maintain contact with them when they acquitted
themselves so well in coming to his defense?
5. Jack repeatedly makes allusions to life as a "sweepstakes." Jordan claims: "
`God made a terrible mistake. He delivered me to the wrong people' " (281).
There is a definite tenor that much of the events in a life can be attributed
to random chance or the activities of some outside agent. Do you believe that
all of these characters are mere victims of one grand crap shoot, helpless
pawns in some other being's larger design? Or do you see them exerting an
element of control and choice over their circumstances, which they themselves
are perhaps unaware of? What about in your own world: Are you a driver or a
6. Time's arrow never moves in a line here, neither straight into the future,
nor directly back into the past. Instead, it winds and weaves, now backward,
now forward again, repeating on itself, and taking on the texture of waves.
What effect does this technique contribute to the tale--what is present here
that would be lost--had Conroy adopted a more linear approach in the
7. Concerning Shyla's suicide and its aftermath, the narrator claims: "Shyla
was the rarest of suicides: no one held her responsible for the act itself; she
was forgiven as instantly as she was missed . . ." (4). Granting that this
statement is true, why do we normally blame the suicide? Who does Jack
blame for Shyla's death? Whose failing do you see as being greater and/or who
do you hold most accountable: the individual, the close family and friends, or
society at large? Further, Jack feels personally that had he known of Shyla's
obsession, he could have helped her more. Is this just a typical survivor's
reaction, or do you find some merit in this?
8. John Hardin's brothers, in their quest to deal with his emotional problems,
make free use of their characteristic sarcasm, caustic wit, and irony. What
effect, if any, do you believe this treatment has on John Hardin? In what other
ways might you imagine them treating him differently, and what effects do you
imagine such changes would make? Are family members' behavior more a cause or
an effect of mental illness?
9. Ledare accuses: "`None of you men will be satisfied until bulimia becomes
part of the wedding vows'" (155). Do you believe this is true? Is modern
women's obsession with personal appearance imposed on them by men, by other
women, or from within? How does beauty work in the novel to help/hinder the
women who possess it?
10. In the first portion of the story, Jack seems tired, bored--even
annoyed--with Ruth's and George's repeated references to the Holocaust. Yet,
when he finally hears their individual stories, Jack, as well as the reader,
must come face-to-face with the fact that, as horrible as they are, these are
only two told stories. In spite of the relative comforts of time and distance,
it is very difficult for the reader to look at these almost unimaginable images
that are held up for our inspection. What value does the telling of these
unspeakable tales hold for Jack, and further, what value do they hold for the
11. Jack blames Shyla's parents for her sadness and his own parents for many of
their children's problems. Dallas asks: "`Can you ever forgive Mom and Dad for
being exactly who they were born to be?'" (97). Is the wish to have one's
parents be something different a futile desire for the leopard to change its
spots? How do you assess Jack's own talents when it comes to child rearing?
12. Jack speaks of his own sense of helplessness as a child when witnessing
violent acts. Yet, in a sense, he subjects Leah to the same emotions when he
beats up Mimmo DeAngelo, even if it is in defense of Mimmo's wife, Sophia. Is
Conroy perhaps showing us here, with brutal honesty, that it is impossible to
escape our own genetic/environmental past? Do you believe that it is possible
to break out of our familial molds, or is each generation doomed to re-create
in some fashion the wrongs of its predecessor?
13. It is interesting that Capers--arguably one of the least sympathetic
characters in the novel--is often granted the discerning vision of the realist.
"`Yours, Jack, is a world of either-or, all or nothing'" (153). With one
sentence, he nails the fact that the very same fault that Jack finds with
Catholicism, Judaism, and zealous patriotism--the extremity of it all--is one
that he is guilty of himself. Is it just human nature, or is it a tragic flaw
peculiar to Jack, this inability to see the thing we hate in ourselves, and so
turn it outward on humanity?
14. It can be said that "place" almost functions as another character in this
book. Vietnam. The South. Poland. These are places that elicit such monolithic
images and association in our memory that they are as much about ideas as they
are about geography. In light of this, what do you make of Jack's choice of
Italy as a refuge for himself and Leah?
15. It used to be a standard joke among mental health professionals in the
seventies that a paranoiac was merely a realist who saw life too clearly.
Applying this view of the paranoiac to the more general neurosis and psychosis
of Shyla and John Hardin, what is your opinion of their so-called "illnesses"
and the manifestations of them? What is your interpretation of some of the
specific ideas they hold or actions they perform (e.g., John Hardin building a
coffin as the perfect present for his not-quite-dead Mama) that society in
general might label as mad or, at the very least, disturbed?
16. Jack's juvenile complacency on the moral high ground is shaken by an
earthquake of stories that reaches out from the past, rattling the very
foundations of his existence. George says: "`Let me test you to the limit and
find out where civilization ends and depravity begins along the edges of your
soul'" (505). After hearing George's story, does Jack feel that George should
have--could have--behaved any differently? Do you? Who has the right to sit in
judgment on George? In a related issue, during the mock trial everyone--except
for the General--finds Jordan not guilty and they exonerate him. All well and
good, we might say. But what do you believe the parents of the dead boy and
girl might say?
17. One of the chief problems peculiar to the confessional first-person mode is
the inherent difficulty of separating the storyteller from the story, the
dancer from the dance. Elsewhere, Conroy has stated that: ". . . my father's
violence is the central fact of my art and my life." To what extent do you
believe that Jack's views are Conroy's views? At what points, if any, do you
feel that they diverge? Finally, can you find instances where Conroy steps back
and is actually critical of Jack?
18. Virtually all of the characters here are affected in some way by the
concept of masks--both metaphorical and literal--and the converse issue of
nakedness. At one extreme, we have Lucy calling for her makeup first thing
after waking from a near-death coma. At the other end of the spectrum, we have
John Hardin talking to the turtle ladies on the beach while stark naked. Is the
relative ability to don masks or abide one's own nakedness an asset or a
hindrance to these characters? How is the mask/nakedness issue related to both
the physical and emotional survival of other characters, particularly the
19. When reviewing the activities of World War II, many social historians and
critics have found the German citizenry, who did nothing, to be as greatly to
blame as the Nazi soldiers who actually committed the atrocities. Further,
Shyla clearly has drawn parallels in her mind between World War II and the
American involvement in Vietnam. From your own viewpoint, do you see any
parallels between the two wars, and if so, how culpable do you find the
American people who didn't fight, didn't resist, but just sat at home while it
20. John Hardin speaks for many characters in the novel, as well as real-life
codependents everywhere, when he says: "`I'm the victim of a dysfunctional
family . . . I'm not responsible for the actions I commit . . .'" (589). This
kind of alibi has become the rallying cry of a whole generation: ours. How does
Conroy's opus make you feel about such catch phrases of the self-help
21. We see much inflexibility here: Catholic; Judaic; militaristic. Capers
says: "`Rules are a form of discipline. They have their own reason for
existing'" (430). And Martha says of George, "`he thought he was being a good
Jew'"; to which Jack responds, "`And a bad human being'" (64). Whose
intolerance is greater: George's or Jack's? Is it the code that is wrong or the
unwillingness to respect it? Think of the religions with which you are most
familiar. Then think of your definition of a good human being. Do you think it
is possible to adhere to the tenets of any religion exactly to the
letter of the law and still remain at all times a "good" human being?