The Washington Post Book World ⎢ October 19, 1980
PAT CONROY does not like military academies. A 1967 graduate of the Citadel, he has written here about a fictional "Carolina Military Institute" that combines some of the more quaint and murderous aspects of the Citadel, West Point, and Virginia Military Institute. Set in the Charleston of his own senior year, The Lords of Discipline is Conroy's rendering of life in an institution whose mission is the making of men — or rather, the making of men and the breaking, deliberate and absolute, of those boys who fail to measure up.
What Conroy has achieved is twofold; his book is at once a suspense-ridden duel between conflicting ideals of manhood and a paean to brother love that ends in betrayal and death. Out of the shards of broken friendship a blunted triumph emerges, and it is here, when the duel is won, that the reader finally comprehends the terrible price that any form of manhood can exact. Conroy's personal triumph is in conveying all this in a novel that virtually quivers with excitement and conviction.
The story centers on four senior cadets who have roomed together since their plebe year: Mark Santoro and Dante "Pig" Pignetti, physical specimens of Italian descent from up north; Tradd St. Croix, "the honey prince," effete young aristocrat from the cobwebs of old Charleston; and the narrator, Will McLean, awkward, self-conscious, rebellious, and sharp-tongued, a low-born Irish cracker too sensitive to play Southern military man with much enthusiasm. What began as a plebe-year alliance of brawn and brain has grown by August 1966 into a circle of brotherly devotion — a circle hardened by the crucible of life at the Institute, where the one thing they teach you is to hang onto your brothers, don't ever stand alone.
The Institute is about to get its first black cadet, and as the year begins the commandant gives Will the unofficial assignment of making sure he gets through his plebe year without being castrated, lynched, or worse. As the corps bolshevik, Will is a natural for the job: he's the one who makes the grade but refuses to become one of the boys, the one they have to respect but can never quite trust. Soon after the grotesque breaking-in period (known as cadre) gets underway he assumes responsibility for another plebe as well, a fat-faced Carolina boy named Poteete who has the misfortune to be perceived as a crybaby. It is Poteete's spectacular breakdown and almost anticlimactic suicide that set Will on his pursuit of the shadowy brotherhood known as the Ten.
The Ten is a secret mafia whose existence has long been rumored but never proven, a silent and malevolent force dedicated (or so it is said) to maintaining the purity of the Institute -- racial purity included. For Will, they become the insubstantial embodiment of all evil, the ultimate perversion of power. But though they provide the impetus that propels the four room-mates headlong into disaster, thematically they seem almost superfluous. For The Lords of Discipline is not simply about the abuse of power by a few; it is about the allure power holds for everyone, the weak most of all.
Will's clash with the Ten, though it makes for compelling reading, soon develops the unlikely thrill quotient of a Hardy Boys adventure, but his clash with the idea of discipline is recounted with gravity and passion and style. In an 80-page flashback called "The Taming," Conroy takes us back to Will's own plebe year, and life at the Institute begins to fall into place. After graceful treatises on the "refined cruelty" of Charleston — that beauteous pearl of a city whose gentility is caked with the blood of slaves — and glimpses of the terror its citadel of manhood can inspire, we are slowly let in on the secret of how the Institute goes about its task.
The Taming is the process by which the cadre flushes out those weaklings who fail to break under normal hazing: a boy is singled out from his peers, and within 48 hours he is shattered. Graham Craig was afraid of heights, so they wrapped him in a mattress cover, tied it to a rail, and left him dangling high above the quadrangle. Bill Agee was caught masturbating too often so they made him wear a single white glove until be became the school joke. Will himself was selected for the Taming but spared at the last moment by forces beyond his control: "The shoe I was licking was withdrawn," Conroy writes, "and I heard a violent argument break out."
Conroy does not neglect the perverse sexuality that the lust for mastery implies: "His lips touched against my ear in a malignant parody of a kiss," Will informs us after he's been anally threatened by a cadre officer's swagger stick during the induction known as Hell Night. "There was something nightmarishly erotic in his brutality as I listened to his ugly whispers burning into my ears. I thought of the taking of beleaguered cities, the fury of plunder. . . . That's what it is, I thought. That's what it is, as I surveyed the images before me. This was the rape of boys."
As with the Spartans, however, the ritual violation of boys is not without purpose: Will goes on to cite the birth of "a malignant virility" in the hearts of plebes that night, a virility they would come to use against future boys on this same quadrangle. Conroy's dispute is with this idea of virility. His is a harsh judgment, stunningly rendered. But he does not reject all he has learned, for he is a Southerner and no Southerner can escape his upbringing entirely. A sense of brotherhood is implanted on the quadrangle as well, and it is not coincidental that his narrator's most terrible moments occur at the end, when Will takes on the Ten and the code of brotherhood is betrayed. Love your friends, Conroy warns; they are all that matters.
Will bears an uncommon resemblance to Ben Meecham, the Marine brat and high-school basketball star who bests his father and, in a moment of supreme Oedipal fulfillment, drives off with his mother and siblings in The Great Santini, Conroy's autobiographical first novel. There are times, in fact, when Will's tale sounds less like a work of fiction than like an anguished cry from the heart — except, of course, that it is so tightly bridled, Conroy having learned well the importance of order and mystery and control, those ideas which stand at the center of the military mystique. The problem with Conroy is that he has seen too well, learned too much. "A Southern man is incomplete without a tenure under military rule," Will tells us in the prologue. "I am not an incomplete Southern man. I am simply damaged goods, like all the rest of them." ■
Frank Rose, the author of Real Men, writes about the Pentagon in an upcoming issue of Esquire.