Beach Music Summary

Pat Conroy

Beach Music

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Beach Music Summary

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Beach Music by Pat Conroy is a contemporary fiction novel. It tells the story of Jack McCall, a South Carolina native who flees to Rome with his daughter Leah after his wife commits suicide. His search for peace is disturbed when he is summoned back to South Carolina to care for his ailing mother. The novel explores many themes, including suicide, war, (both WWII and Vietnam are explored), grief, coming-of-age, and more.

Conroy began writing his novel as a way to cope with his mother’s death in 1984. Ten years later, it was submitted to a publisher and was on press by 1995. Beach Music reached the top position on the New York Times’ Best Seller list. Film plans have been made and discarded, but Paramount Pictures still owns the film rights.

The opening paragraph, told in first-person from Jack McCall, tells the story of his wife Shyla’s leap from a bridge to her death. Jack is in Rome with his daughter Leah, trying to forget the bitter memories stemming from Shyla’s suicide. Her death caused a custody battle over Leah between Jack and Shyla’s parents. Now that it’s behind them, Jack hopes Leah becomes a full-fledged Italian, with no knowledge of South Carolina or the family members they left behind.

However, Jack’s plans are not to be. Shyla’s sister, Martha, hires a private investigator, who we see tailing Jack and Leah through the beginning of the novel. Martha wants Jack to return home to reunite with Shyla’s father, who she believes has insights into Shyla’s suicide.

At the same time, Jack’s old friend Mike Hess appears. He is a successful film producer and is linked with Jack’s former girlfriend, Ledare. Mike also wants Jack to return home, but for different reasons than Martha. Mike hopes that Jack will sign on to his new movie about their South Carolina childhoods, and also provide information about a mutual friend, Jordan, who presumably died after a Vietnam War protest went off the rails.

During the same span of time, Jack receives a phone call from his brother, Dupree, with news of their mother: she is suffering from leukemia. So through all of these turns of events, Jack and Leah make their way back to South Carolina.

Jack’s return to South Carolina (at first, alone, while Leah stays in Rome) is a violent confrontation of all he ran away from. First, he has to contend with his parents. His father, Judge Johnson Hagood McCall, is an angry and abusive alcoholic. Jack’s mother, Lucy, left him years ago and is happily married to a doctor. The judge is a constant thorn in the side of his children, especially Jack’s brother Dallas – who is his father’s law partner. Jack’s other brother, Dupree, works at a mental hospital in Columbia. Tecumseh, or Tee, cares for autistic children. The youngest sibling, John, is the most unstable of all (and ironically his mother’s favorite). Several scenes throughout the novel illustrate this instability, the most memorable of which involves John holding a drawbridge hostage with a shotgun as a protest. His brothers come to the rescue and convince him to stop. He agrees only when his brothers agree to strip naked and jump off the bridge in question. They do, and the incident is resolved.

Jack’s mother, Lucy, begins to recover from her episode of leukemia and visits Jack and Leah in Rome, where they meet the pope and Gore Vidal, and also meet up with the long-lost Jordan. As suspected by the various private detectives tailing Jack, Jordan is not dead after being accused of murder during a Vietnam War protest. In fact, he is a priest who pops up in a variety of different churches and wears the habits of different orders because he is running from the law.

The novel takes another turn when Jack, along with Leah and Lucy, are in the airport readying for their return to South Carolina. He is shot by terrorists and lands in the hospital, where Jordan appears to read him last rites before his surgery. While this is happening, a TV camera films him, alerting many people to the fact that he is very much alive – including Jordan’s father, who Jordan says is evil.

Months pass while Jack recovers from the terrorist attack. He and Jordan orchestrate a plan to foil Jordan’s father’s operation to bring Jordan into police custody. Ledare also shows up at the hospital, where she begins to reconnect with Jack. Jack starts to consider finding a new mother for Leah.

Finally, Jack is healthy enough to travel, and he and Leah go back to South Carolina to introduce her for the first time to the family and also to a five-year-old child with Down Syndrome who turns out to be some sort of dolphin whisperer.

While all of this is taking place, the novel frequently flashes back to long chapters about Jack’s childhood, his friends, his wife’s suicide, his mother’s childhood, and even how the ancestors of the characters immigrated to America. Included in these are the Holocaust stories of Shyla’s parents, who are slowly opening up to Jack and, in return, Jack is more willing to listen to them.

One of the flashbacks tells the story of a teenage Jack and his friends, Jordan and Capers Middleton. They are stranded at sea for fifteen days after a manta ray destroys their motorboat and a lengthy passage tells about their fight for survival.

The climax of the story takes place during an elaborate mock-trial. Staged by Mike the filmmaker, the main characters come together on stage to tell their version of the events that eventually drove them apart. Jack’s father wears his actual judicial robes and brings his gavel to a rented theatre in Charleston. This is the coming together moment, where grief meets reconciliation.

However, the novel is far from over. John, the least stable of the McCall boys, kidnaps his dying mother, takes her on a canoe trip, and threatens to shoot his brothers. Eventually, Lucy succumbs to her illness and dies, but not before she is able to impart wisdom on the children she spent so long neglecting.

At its core, although sometimes buried beneath layers of flashbacks and seemingly unrelated stories, Beach Music is about human resilience, love, and the power of friends and family. Eventually, Jack comes to terms with his past, and while things are not perfect, they are on the mend.