How far can an author push first person point of view?

Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy


It’s a strange process how a book finds a reader.

In the book business the old saying that when the student is ready the teacher will appear becomes: “When the reader is ready the book will appear.”

So it was at my house this last week.

The book in question is Pat Conroy’s South of Broad.

I am a huge Pat Conroy fan, but haven’t read all of his works.  I knew South of Broad was lurking at my house for I had purchased it as a birthday gift for my wife four years ago.

For some unknown reason, I became obsessed with finding it.  I didn’t know why.

By way of background I would tell you that I am working on a book written in first person reminiscent point of view about a seventeen year old white boy’s senior year  in high school in 1967-1968, the period in which court-mandated desegregation came to East Texas.

I had no idea what South of Broad was about other than I knew the title was a reference to the wealthiest section of Charleston, South Carolina.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the book and began to read.

It was a story about a teenage white boy in Charleston, told in first person, as he prepared to enter his senior year in high school in 1969.

I’m not kidding.

Take this example from chapter one:

If I knew then what I have come to learn, I would never have made a batch of cookies for the new family across the street, never uttered a single word to the orphans, and never introduced myself to the two students who were kicked out of Porter-Gaud School and quickly enrolled at my own Peninsula High for their senior year.

Compare this to what I had written a few days earlier.

If I had known how my senior year at Kilgore High School, the years of our Lord 1967 through 1968, would play out, I might have chopped those events off before they budded and might have hopped on the bus to Vietnam in the middle of the night with Ronnie Kincaid.

…Before I can tell you, however, about my first taste of love with Shirley Danita, and true love I believe to this day it was, before I lay out the aborted road trip to see Pistol Pete Maravich, which ended in such viciousness, before I describe the dust devil of court-mandated school desegregation, before you relive with me my encounter with the American criminal justice system, I must introduce you to the world into which I was born.

Kind of eerie, or at least it was to me when I looked at the similar structures of those early moments in the books.

But the subject of this post is a slightly more arcane issue dealing with how far a writer can push first person point of view.

Later in chapter one, Conroy describes Leo, his hero, with his parents at a local cafe.  The owner of the restaurant is a vivacious Greek girl named Cleo.  Here’s the passage.

Cleo was a fast-talking Greek girl who ran the cash register as though she were reloading an M16 rifle for snipers.  Her patter was endless and profane until my parents walked in for breakfast and her attitude turned beatific.  Both of my parents had taught her when they were at Bishop Ireland High, and she held fast to the respect that high school kids who never go to college continue to feel for the last teachers of their lives. (emphasis added)

“Okay, Steve, what’s your point?” you ask.

It’s the last part of that last sentence.

Could Leo know that Cleo in her heart of hearts held such a feeling about her former teachers?

It’s a fine point, but not really. I suppose Leo and Cleo could have talked about her feelings in the past so that Leo knew them and was only reporting what he had come to understand about her.

That’s not likely.  Rather, Leo ascribes his thoughts to Cleo.

I can see how the reminiscent first person narrator must fight this tendency to tell what he believes someone thinks.

Either that or he must set up the scene so that it becomes plain how he had personal knowledge of what he reports.

Don’t you just love the ins and outs of the writing gig?



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