Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Review: 'The Lords of Discipline' by Pat Conroy

The Lords of Discipline (1980)
Pat Conroy (1945-)

499 pages

Flawed characters one and all populate Pat Conroy’s novel The Lords of Discipline. He sets the story in 1967, in Charleston, South Carolina, at the fictitious Carolina Military Institute (CMI), and uses the setting to examine two small, proud, closed societies in the United States: the aristocratic families of east coast cities with historical roots going back to the nation’s founding, and the few remaining military institutes in the country. In the Author’s Note that precedes the novel he writes that he has modeled CMI on his experiences at Citadel University, in Charleston, which he attended in the 1960’s, as well as on the experiences of graduates from other military institutes, military high schools, and military academies --- though he states that the specific events in this novel are fictitious.

The story centers on cadet-student Will McLean, who has come to Charleston from Georgia to attend CMI and so fulfill, if reluctantly, a deathbed promise to his overbearing father, a former marine and CMI graduate. During his freshman year, McLean befriends and eventually becomes roommates with the son of one of Charleston’s oldest families, and finds himself seemingly taken in as part of the family. Having arrived at CMI with a half-formed but stubbornly held set of beliefs and attitudes born out of his middle class upbringing and his consistent rebellion against anything his father stood for, his life at CMI as well as his interaction with the Charleston elite force him to re-evaluate his motivations and outlook, his strengths and limitations, and make the transition to manhood.

From the moment he arrives on campus, McLean bucks against the harsh plebe system and more generally the military formality of the institute. But his rebellion is at the same time tempered by his unwillingness to be seen as a failure, either in his mother’s eyes, or those of his classmates. So he spends four years fighting the system, ever on the verge of insubordination to his higher ranking fellow students and professors, but never fully crossing the line in a way that would get him dismissed from the school. In a system where the cowering freshman who survive their plebe year often become the brutal disciplinarians of the following year’s freshman class, McLean’s attempts to take a more humane approach only mark him as an outsider to his classmates.

In the aristocratic world of Charleston’s upper class, McLean also confronts a society that he finds unacceptable by his standards, but one that at the same time he finds seductive with its highly cultured lifestyle --- an antidote to the single-mindedness he rails against at the school. In this rarified setting his humanist tendencies again undermine him, though now in a different way: he begins to lose sight of his initial understanding that he can never be a fully accepted part of the insular society to which an accident of circumstance has given him entrance.

The plot of the novel turns on the enrollment in McLean’s senior year of the first black student at CMI, Pearce. A member of the school administration asks McLean to keep an eye on Pearce, to try and prevent him from being run out of the school by an array of forces that want to keep the institute all white. But for large swaths of the story Pearce is not present and rarely if at all mentioned, as Conroy focuses on the impact on McLean of the complex emotional landscape of both the harsh military institute, and the genteel and proper, if aggressively self-centered, aristocratic Charleston society. McLean may dislike the military aspects of the institute and the uncritical approach most of the student-cadets take to the institute and their instruction, but he at the same time learns to cherish the camaraderie and selflessness that comes with it for his classmates. And, he may have an outsiders disdain of Charleston’s high society, but he at the same time appreciates the cultured and educated family he becomes a part of through his roommate. By having McLean work through his often contradictory feelings about these complexities, Conroy makes more convincing the events that conclude the book, when the focus comes squarely back to McLean’s struggle to save Pearce’s position at the school --- as well as his own.

Conroy leaves little to the imagination in his presentation of the physical and psychological brutality of the plebe system, which makes for many challenging moments for a reader; this is particularly the case for students whose weaknesses are discovered and harshly exploited to run them out of the school. However, by also demonstrating the camaraderie that is generated in part by surviving the brutality together with classmates, Conroy tries to provide readers unfamiliar with the setting a way to understand how some boys can withstand the violence inherent in the system, and use the experience to become men.

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