The Lords of Discipline
Author: Pat Conroy
I was loaned The Lords of Discipline by a friend that attended the Citadel about 40+ years after this book take place. He told me that the book was written by an author that went to the Citadel, and the book (which takes place at a Carolina Military Institute) was somewhat based on the author’s time at the school and revealed all sorts of hidden details that the school and alumni were upset about afterwards. In addition to that, the author was essentially banned from the university for decades. As I learned all this, I thought “I’m probably not going to care much about this book because I didn’t go to the Citadel and didn’t even know it was South Carolina until that same conversation.” Still, never one to turn away from a book recommendation, I went ahead and read the damn thing.
I’m glad I did, because this ended up being one of the best books I’ve read this year. The story is told through first person narrative by Will McLean, an Irish American cadet at the Carolina Military Institute in the 1960’s. He is roommates with Tradd St. Croix, an effeminate aristocrat from Charleston and two Italian Americans named Dante “Pig” Pignetti and Mark Santoro. I included their ethnicities, because a big part of this book is the language that these young men all use with each other, which reminded me of the barbershop scene in “Gran Torino” when every comment made was an insult about somebody’s heritage. If the language in that scene bothered you, you will probably hate this book. In the book, the language is often meant to be endearing, but other times it is certainly meant to hurt the recipient.
Will is a senior when the book begins, and most of the book takes place chronologically in that year except for a section that flashes back to his Plebe (freshman) year at school. The school is famous for being hard on the incoming cadets, to the point that out of 700 incoming students only 400 will stay with it through their first year. Conroy details the types of hazing done in that first Hell Night, the rest of Hell Week and the treatment somebody who had been separated from the rest of the class would endure. Unlike seemingly the rest of the upperclassmen, Will is against the hazing rituals and prefers to offer solace for cadets in need. Because of this characteristic, he is asked by Colonel “Bear” Berrineau (an analog for real life figure Colonel Thomas “The Boo” Courvoisie) to make sure that the first ever black cadet is not run out of the school due to extreme targeting.
Although that is the central plot of the book and where much of the conflict comes from, it is also absent from much of the book as Conroy fills in McLean’s world with other coming of age events. Much of that is time spent among the four roommates bonding in the room or taking part in shenanigans. There is also a significant through plot about Will’s courting of a Charleston girl named Annie Kate who has been hidden from the world by her parents for what is certainly the most predictable reason a woman in the 1960’s would be hid from her social circle. Will also plays on his college basketball team, and there is an extended chapter about a game that also was drawn directly from true events in Conroy’s life. Finally, it seems throughout much of the book the individual Will is closest to is Abigail, Tradd’s mother. The two of them have a surrogate mother/confidant relationship.
Despite reading as autobiographical and often humorous, I found much of this book to be very suspenseful. The stress that the cadets go through is palpable, and that even extends to characters that are not part of the core cast. The consequences for making a mistake ranged from physical violence or psychological damage to an excommunication ritual that seemed like the end of the world for those it was imposed on. The antagonists in this book were often mysterious unknown figures. The possibility of a secret group pulling the strings made it difficult for the reader to trust anybody Will confided to.
Oddly, despite the book being suspenseful it was also somewhat predictable. **Vague spoilers follow** From the moment a phone call alerts several dangerous individuals to Will’s nearby presence, it is clear that not only is there a traitor but who in particular it is. Likewise, out of the three main army officers at the school, one of them is never in doubt as not being on Will’s side and it’s hard to believe Will would fall for a trick that makes him discredit another. Finally, Will’s ace in the hole at the end is easy to spot coming based on a character that served no other purpose in the book aside from providing a lot of information about a peculiar hobby. **End of vague spoilers**
However, the predictability did not bother me as it also made sense within the world that was established. Rather than create a twist ending that makes you question everything that took place before, Will experiences a shocking twist that we have predicted based on what information he has shared through that point. The additional twist involving Will’s girlfriend earlier in the book felt like an unnecessary one, however by that point the book had built up enough goodwill that I was willing to overlook it. The end result was a book that was humorous, suspenseful and touching throughout with very memorable characters.