I was reluctant to read The Lords of Discipline as I'm not much interested in books with military themes. But I finally decided to read it as I love Pat Conroy and it takes place in my favorite of all cities, Charleston, SC. Wow! Not only was I blown away, but I also have a new book for my top ten list.
Aspiring novelist and basketball player, Will McLean, finds himself a college student at the Carolina Military Institute (The Citadel--thinly disguised). Will was not interested in the military, but he promises his dying father that he will attend his alma mater. Will doesn't exactly excel in military studies, but he's a decent student, an athlete, and his professors and peers recognize him for his integrity and his sense of fairness. Still, this is not an easy time to be a student in a military academy--especially in the South. The Viet Nam War was raging, the military was unpopular and desegregation was knocking on the doors of Southern schools. The Fourth Class system is brutal at best, and most cadets will look on their freshman year and Hell Night as living nightmares. There are also rumors of a powerful and clandestine group of Institute students and alumni called The Ten. While nothing has come forward to prove their existence, the possibility of such a group casts a cloud over the Corps of Cadets.
Will and his roommates have survived the trials and tribulations of their underclassmen years. But circumstances change very rapidly. The first black student enrolls at the Institute and Will is asked to be a secret mentor to Cadet Tom Pearce. It quickly becomes apparent that a group of cadets is trying to run Pearce out of the Institute. Will steps in to intervene, and he discovers a truth so horrendous that this knowledge can bring down the Institute. It also makes Will and his roommates targets. Not only is their graduation now in jeopardy, but their lives are also in danger.
Conroy is a master wordsmith, and I find myself reading his sentences over and over again. It's comparable to taking a bite of a decadent dessert, and rolling it around on your tongue to savor every forkful. His descriptions are priceless, his characters well fleshed out, and the plot will have you marathon reading to finish this 498-page book. I especially loved his observations about Charleston and the low country. Conroy also deals with timeless and universal issues. They include the struggles of a young boy growing into manhood and how difficult it is to stand up for your beliefs. Also, how those that love you can cause the worst hurt, and how those you think are loyal friends can betray you in a heartbeat. Conroy dwells on how it is possible to love and hate something at the same time (in this case, the Institute), and how the righteous don't always prevail. And while things might turn out in the end, they might not turn out the way you envision them.
The one bad thing about Pat Conroy is that he is not one of those "serial" bestsellers who produce a book every year-whether they have anything to say or not. While we often have to wait years between books, Conroy's works are definitely worth the wait. Also, after reading The Lords of Discipline, I suggest picking up his nonfiction work, My Losing Season. Detailing his senior year playing basketball for The Citadel, Conroy will reveal how much of The Lords of Discipline is autographical.
on September 11, 2009
Just a few days after I was admitted to attend The Citadel, over a decade ago, my mother picked up this book and read it cover to cover in no time at all. A couple days later she handed it to me, wishing that I would read it... and decide to attend college elsewhere. I read the book cover to cover, enthralled and fascinated the whole way through, and when I finished the last page my resolve to attend the school that had inspired this book had only grown stronger.
The Fourth Class System Pat Conroy describes in this book is entirely accurate, as he went through it himself and thus knew it first-hand. Much has changed since Conroy was there, but I can personally attest to the fact that the brotherhood he depicts in this story between the protagonist, Will, and his roommates is a perfect an example of the type of relationships that still evolve between cadets who share that same experience to this very day.
Conroy describes the difficulties the South Carolina Military Institute had in acclimating to racial integration in this novel. I can tell you that I attended The Citadel shortly after gender integration had been mandated by the federal district courts, and many of the same emotions that Conroy describes in this story were running through the Corps of Cadets during my tenure at the military college of South Carolina. The struggles of the school during my time there were not so much rooted in some terrible dislike of females, or even a gender bias as to the abilities of male versus female, but more a resistance to change of any sort... just like what Conroy depicts in The Lords of Discipline as the first black student attended college there amidst a tremendous backlash from within the Corps of Cadets (not to mention from many Alumni as well). Of course there are always going to be some racists and chauvinists at any college or university in the United States, this isn't something exclusive to a Southern military school, but Conroy really does a good job of demonstrating how so much of the resistance against these historic changes came not from hatred but rather from a desperate attempt to hold onto a tradition and a way of life ingrained in the South Carolinian culture of antiquity and state pride.
Conroy also beautifully depicts the emotional travails of the cadets at SCMI, as they struggle with popular backlash against the Viet Nam War... all while contemplating what their lives have in store for both those who take their commissioning into the United States armed forces, as well as for those who opt to remain civilians upon graduating. Conroy so genuinely conveys the true sentiment of the young men who really faced this tough decision through his characters in this novel. I only know how accurate his depiction is since I was a Cadet at the Citadel on 9/11/2001, and I graduated at a time when the War in Iraq was only just a year underway.
Pat Conroy exposes the psyche of a living institution along South Carolina's Ashley River in The Lords of Discipline. This is an excellent novel with more non-fiction to it than meets the eye. Who will represent the school's standard of the complete man (or "complete person" these days) - the citizen/soldier who wears the ring with deserving pride; who will fall short of expectations and bring shame upon the school; and who "should" never have the opportunity to enter the school's gates in the first place? Pat Conroy captures the true essence of this Southern military school in The Lords of Discipline - not simply for the way it was 40 years ago, but for the way it has always been, intrinsically and inescapably - forever and always.
on September 3, 1997
This is one of my alltime favorite books and I think Will is one of the most amazing, soulful and best developed characters I have ever come across in any novel. I read this book in college a few years ago after a close male friend of mine showed me a particular excerpt from it which described a professor of Will's at The Citadel. He was the passionate professor whom Conroy began describing by writing "he was the most brilliant scholar I had ever known. . . " Anyway, at that time a mentor of mine, my favorite professor (an English Prof) and good friend, had just been diagnosed with cancer and was told he had only a few weeks to live. I was devastated and wanted to express to him how much he meant to me and I wanted him to know what an amazing and inspiring professor he had been but I couldn't seem to find words that would do justice to how incredible he was.
Well, my friend Richard showed me a passage from Lords of Discipline which simply blew me away - it was exactly what I felt about Dr. Stirling and Conroy just put it so beautifully. I was immediately struck by his eloquence and his mastery of imagery and I borrowed the book and read it from cover to cover without stopping. After he died, Dr. Stirling's wife later told me that the letter I sent him with the Conroy quotation had touched him deeply and to this day The Lords of Discipline will always hold a special place in my heart. I met Pat Conroy at a book signing in Atlanta and was able to thank him personally for his words of inspiration. He was a lovely man and I would recommend any of his books (The Water is Wide is my second favorite). If I had only read the summary of what The Lords of Discipline is about I would not have bothered to read it - I am a female and I have never been one to enjoy military type novels but this was a big surprise. This book is about friendship, loyalty, betrayal, love, and coming of age in a confusing society. It was not what I expected at all and now I never pass by a book simply because it doesn't "look" like one I would enjoy. Reading The Lords of Discipline changed my view on that. Obviously, I simply can not say enough about this book - please read it - you won't be disappointed!
on June 21, 2013
There were parts of this book that I loved! There were times that I was reading it and I couldn't put it down! Then, I would come upon a part where the author would take me away from the characters that I was caring about and invested in and expound upon South Carolina and Charleston in such minute detail that it would completely pull me out of the "place" I was in. I would then put the book down and not pick it up for days. I am satisfied with the three stars as I really did enjoy this book and even picked up another Pat Conroy book right after, I was just disappointed from where he went from time to time into his reverie of Charleston. I get his point about making the surroundings a character in the book because of its substance and influence on the actual characters, I just thought it pulled me away too much from the people I wanted to know more about.
on August 30, 2009
I am a sophomore in high school, and this was the required honors book to read over the summer. So, I went to the book store, picked it up and it sat on my nightstand for two months. When I finally decided I couldn't procrastinate any longer, I begrudgingly picked it up and started reading it. It took me about three days to get through the entire book. It is, bar none, the best book I have ever read in my life. I really felt like I was able to relate to the characters and what they were going through. I laughed, I cried, and I loved. I loved this book, despite my original first judgments. Do not let the length, the cover, or the things written on the back of the book discourage you from picking it up. If you have not read this book, no matter what age you are, you need to go to the bookstore right now and buy it, and immediately start reading it. It is the best written book, and even if you don't usually like things about the military, you will love this book. Perfect for all ages.
on January 2, 2000
Pat conroy is frighteningly truthful in this must read novel about a boys experience in a tough-life military school and his transition from boyhood to being a man. Will Mclean is the narator and hero of this novel. He expresses all the horrid details, all the touching revelations, all the tear-wrenching loyalties involved in this literary work of art. The book is filled with mystery and feeling as Will Mclean, a cadet at Carolina Military Institute, overcomes challenge after challenge and watches his fellow classmen fall out of the ranks of the school. His survival is based on his instincts, his dedication, his friendship. But all of these come under jeapardy as he is torn between friends, the institute, his dreams of love, and his commitment towards the destruction of a malevolent secret force known as The Ten. One of Pat Conroy's best works. You simply cannot put this down after you open it.
on August 11, 2014
My father is from Charleston. Reading this book was like looking through a secret window into his life and his soul. The city itself is one of the six characters – the outsider Will McLean, the loyal idiot Pig, the middleman Mark, the aristocrat Tradd, the grim, glittering Institute (a slight recoloring of The Citadel), and the ancient city of Charleston, South Carolina. This is a book about a white boy trying to save a black boy for all the wrong reasons, about the harm that men do to themselves and to one another for almost no reason at all, about the love that exists between brothers and about the searing pain of betrayal. It’s about the hellishness of fallen humanity. It’s about race, caste, indoctrination, cruelty, pride, and humiliation. It’s about a man who says of himself, “My goodness is my vanity, my evil. It does not well up naturally out of me but is calculated and plotted as carefully as a mariner studies the approach to an unfamiliar harbor. Sometimes I will reveal this to friends so they will like me and praise my honesty, but in actuality, I am presenting them with a mariner’s chart of my character.”
This book is a punch to the gut. It deeply disturbed me. It changed the way that I looked at things. My father is not like one of these men – not really. But it’s because my father has been rescued by Jesus Christ, not just embraced the religion that one finds everywhere in the South. And I’m glad for that.
Is this a great book? Maybe. The plot is a little too tightly wound at the end. It seems, perhaps, a bit contrived. But the writing is remarkable, and the characters are painfully, horribly human. Great or not, it’s worth reading and suffering through.
Author Pat Conroy borrowed heavily from his experiences as a cadet at the Citadel to pen this 1980 novel, "The Lords of Discipline." Later made into a film version of the same name that played up the subplot of racism at the expense of the greater themes of friendship, loyalty, discipline, and southern atmosphere, this book is a penetrating insight into the rigors of life in a military college. Most readers are probably more familiar with Pat Conroy's novels "The Great Santini" and "The Prince of Tides," and the two movies they spawned, but fans of those books shouldn't overlook this phenomenal effort.
Conroy's protagonist in "The Lords of Discipline" is one Will McLean, a cadet in the senior class at the Carolina Military Institute (referred to by everyone associated with it as "The Institute") in the late 1960s. It is easy to imagine that McLean is a symbolic Conroy, with his love of English and writing, his liberal ideas, and his sense of individuality within an institution that subscribes to total conformity. Born in Georgia, Will agreed to attend CMI when his father asked him to do so on his deathbed. It is only because of this promise that Will sticks it out through what ranks as one of the most degrading, brutal experiences a person will ever face. It is the freshman year at the Institute that really separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, as all incoming plebes (called knobs by upperclassmen) undergo hazing of astonishing, and illegal, levels. McLean survives the ordeal by making friends with Tradd St. Croix, a rich scion of one of Charleston's most prominent families; Dante Pignetti, a tough as nails northerner who lifts weights and possesses a most unusual affection for his girlfriend Theresa; and Mark Santoro, another northerner who matches Pignetti in physical prowess. The four friends latch on to one another during freshman year and then share the rest of their school days as roommates. The Institute's rigorous requirements create emotional bonds that go beyond mere friendship: these guys are like brothers, and they openly profess their love for one another without any sense of indecency.
Will might have cleared the final hurdles of his senior year and graduated in relative anonymity if several incidents didn't rise up to confront him. The first problem occurs when Colonel Berrineau, known as "Bear," the gruff overseer and protector of the cadets, asks Will to protect the first black plebe in the school's history. Another crisis arises when Will meets a local girl, a well to do lass suffering from an unwanted pregnancy. These two incidents, along with Will's increasing sense of alienation from the Institute's mindless conformity, place McLean's standing at school in deep jeopardy. When a secret organization within the school called "The Ten" decides that the black cadet must go, Will finds himself in a moral dilemma that forces him to decide where his loyalties lie. McLean's ultimate choices cast doubts on the certitude of honor and the dangers of conformity.
Even this lengthy summary doesn't properly convey the numerous themes and memorable scenes spread throughout this story. Conroy is a fantastic writer, creating situation after situation of penetrating insights, moral and emotional predicaments, and youthful vigor. Not many writers can pull off a story like the one about Will's last basketball game at the Institute. Conroy perfectly captures the triumph and tragedy of a young man playing the last game of a sport he loves. Moreover, the author uses the game as a way to expose McLean's agonizing dilemma about the Institute. In many ways, Will despises what the Institute stands for, how it demeans and crushes the human spirit, but during the game he realizes how great it is to have the entire body of cadets pulling for him with all of their heart. It's this love/hate relationship with the CMI that makes Will's final decisions so achingly difficult.
Arguably the best part of "The Lords of Discipline" involves Will's flashback concerning his freshman year experiences as a knob. I know nothing about life in a military institution, but the situations Will and his friends found themselves in are shocking and brutal. It all starts with "Hell Night," where the cadets march the knobs to the parade ground and proceed to scream and bully until every new man is reduced to a quivering wreck. This night of torture is only the beginning of a long year of endless brutality and sadism. All suffer endlessly under the system, but cadets pay special attention to certain individuals who show any signs of weakness. In a process described as "taming," a knob with an allergy to tomatoes resigns after cadets force him to drink glass after glass of tomato juice. I don't know if this type of behavior continues today, but it must have been the case when Conroy attended the Citadel. Personally, I do think this sort of weeding out process is a good idea, as discipline and toughness tend to be in short supply today. At the same time, some of the stuff Conroy describes in his novel is definitely in the region of pure illegality. It's just another example of the split personality of an institute that touts honor above all else while engaging in decidedly dishonorable activities.
Everything you can think of is in this book: romance, action, and drama all make appearances here. Conroy leaves little to the imagination as he sweeps his readers away through page after page of pure genius. I'll bet the Citadel never knew they had a brilliant artist strolling through their hallowed halls, but readers are better off that Conroy suffered the slings and arrows of a military institute. "The Lords of Discipline" is must read material.
on January 28, 2012
This was another recommendation to me and I took the plunge.
What a fantastic book. The writing is phenomenal and the ability to tell a story is just Conroy's gift to say the least. Conroy is stellar here. I know there are a ton of other reviews so no need to really get into the details of what the book is about - although the short and sweet is: going through the trials and tribulations within a military school. What I truly enjoyed about this book was that the writing seemed effortless. I was saying to my wife the other day that after reading a book that's just mediocre or average at best, then reading this book, you can appreciate what kind of gift Conroy has been given. Because of this writing you really are sucked in to the story and the characters and the events that take place. And like any good piece of work, you have the emotional connection to each of the characters. You want to reach through the pages and sometimes slap them, sometimes cry with them, sometimes just be part of their lives.
If you're on the fence, buy it, read it, enjoy it. It's hands down one of the best books I've ever read.
I'm on to The Great Santini and I think I'm gonna like it just as much as I did The Lords of Discipline.
on November 11, 2002
It was right after reading "My Losing Season" that I decided it was time to pick up this book. I had thought about reading it several times before, but I as I stated in my review of the nonfiction work "My Losing Season", I was trying to space out Pat Conroy's books because I knew that I'd only get to read them once for the first time.
It was very interesting reading this book because even though it is a fictional story it is based on some true events (which are chronicled in "My Losing Season") as well being based on the realities of many that went through the rigors and trials of a military academy. Conroy interviewed students that graduated as well as students that didn't make it at various military schools (Citadel, VMI, Air Force Academy, etc.) to use their shared experiences to make this work ring true even though it was a fictional story much like many of the Law and Order television episodes are based on real crimes.
I kept wondering how much of this story was totally made up and how much was based on real events. In "My Losing Season" Conroy tells the real story of his relationship with a girl that appears in the fictional work here. He changed a lot of the details, but the core truth of how badly she hurt him rings true in both the fictional story here and the actual account of the real events. It made me wonder what other stuff was nearly real in this fictional book...
Mr. Conroy talks about how his alma mater wouldn't let him back on campus for many years after this book was published. It hit a cord which reverberated for a long time and I'll take that as a clue that this work, much like "The Prince of Tides" and "Beach Music" were thinly veiled truths, pieces of art that are much to mirror like for comfort.
One downside to reading Conroy in general is the depression that always seems to hit me. I must fight my own demons that get stirred up as I turn the pages reading about his. But despite the scabs that get picked and the wounds that hurt over again, I like reading what he has to say because it's real. Real and true are funny ways to describe fiction but when must of us go day to day hiding and playing games perhaps it is enlightening to go ahead and pretend that what is real, is not, and what is not; is.
If you have not yet read Pat Conroy, this is as good a place to start as any. This work is not as heavy duty as "Prince of Tides" and "Beach Music" and I'd imagine would probably appeal to a wider audience. Once you've read this I'd wager that you'll be anxious to get your hands on "My Losing Season". Enjoy.