I got lost tonight. I got lost and found a version of myself that I thought was gone forever. I lost myself in a book and didn’t care if I didn’t get seven and a half hours of sleep on a work night. I wanted to keep reading and stay in the world of Will and Tradd and Pig and Mark. Sure, my week on swing shift isn’t helping matters on the sleep front. Probably that’s part of the reason why I’m “finding” my old self in the wee small hours of the night.
I feel my copy of The Lords of Discipline and I think about reading it the first time, in the wee small hours of the night, when I was supposed to be sleeping. I was fifteen. Or fourteen. Or sixteen. I don’t know. It was sometime in the early nineties and I was probably wearing flannel. And I was probably sad about something. I was sad a lot in the early nineties (and the mid-nineties, and come to think of it the late nineties. The nineties were not emotionally healthy years for me). Anyway. The Lords of Discipline was unlike anything I had ever read. There was a plethora of profanity. People were called “douchebags,” and “abortions” and “knobs.” People who know me know that I am far from pristine in my language, and I did curse a fair amount for a teenager, but this was different. This was a land of men calling each other horrible things. The language in this book affected me a lot. The violence did too. Interestingly, neither bothers me too much now. I suppose that I, like so many people who live a life with constant bombardment of violence via the media, with things like the incident at Abu Ghraib and all that was done to those prisoners, a bunch of white men engaging in hazing rituals at a military college in South Carolina in the early sixties seems pretty damn tame.
Regardless of how much or how little the plebe year section of The Lords of Discipline disturbed me this time around; this book is still a page-turner. I want to know what’s going to happen!! I have vague memories of the plot details. I remember the basics, and some of the especially amusing parts have come back to me as I’ve read (the laxative laden fudge made especially for the cadre upperclassmen is an especial treat to revisit). I remember there is a death and a betrayal, possibly more than one of each. It’s kind of a treat to be reading this book so many years later—there are some surprises still to be had.
The book is a pocket book. It cost $5.99 brand new in 1991. Or 1992. It has seen better days. This book has come with me on every move I’ve made. It’s always been with me. I’ve lent it out frequently. Not recently, though. The pages are yellowed. Like really yellow. The lower corner has lost some of the binding glue. The binding is bent in so many places. All the things I don’t like to happen to my books have happened to this book. I remind myself that it’s impossible to keep a book this old in pristine condition. “Ha!” I reply. “Look at your copy of Villette. It’s even older and it’s in great shape.” “Dumbass. You’ve never read that book.” “Oh, yeah. That explains it.” Speaking of, maybe my next book goal should be to finally read books I’ve purchased more than twenty years ago….
Rereading The Lords of Discipline has helped me to understand a little better why my husband likes rereading books so much. It’s like visiting old friends. Of course, it does tend toward the Conroyvian not infrequently, but it’s okay. There’s plenty of plot and character to dilute out the reflections on his “obsession with memory.”
In the light of day, I feel like some of the things I wrote in the middle of the night were a bit sentimental and emotional. But I’ve decided that’s acceptable to me. Because I am sentimental about The Lords of Discipline specifically and Pat Conroy in general. His books were the first “adult books” I read. They marked the beginning of my twenty-plus year book-friendship with Bethany, which has abided though high school, college, grad school, jobs, relationships, moves across country and back. We can always find something to say about Pat Conroy, and that’s why PAT CONROY MONTH!! seemed like such a good idea. Bethany has already written about how much trouble she’s had writing reviews of his books. I’m not having trouble writing so much as I’m having trouble containing my emotions and living my life in the present rather than the past. I’ve felt seriously off kilter for the past few weeks. I haven’t been able to place why, but I think it might coincide with starting to reread The Lords of Discipline.
This book is the story of Will McLean’s senior year at the Carolina Military Institute in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a thinly veiled version of The Citadel, Conroy’s alma mater. I’ve read that this book made a lot of Citadel alumni really angry. I wonder how much of it was true and how much was fiction—I assume much of the hazing that went on in the book was pulled from real life and that that sort of thing was historically kept under wraps. The things that happen to freshmen, or plebes, or knobs, depending on who is talking, are awful. There is yelling and screaming and urinating and defecating and vomiting. The worst abuses are at the hands of a mythical Institute group known as The Ten. People who fall into their hands get gasoline poured on them and matches thrown at their heads. Like I said before, the violence didn’t bother me as much this time around. I remember when I was a kid I cried at some of these scenes. Perhaps this book helped to desensitize me to violence.
The mystery of The Ten is hinted at at the beginning of the book, but Conroy gets sidetracked and flashes back to his plebe year at The Institute for a couple hundred pages, and waxes poetic about the beauty of Charleston, and then Will falls in love with a shamed pregnant Southern belle. The whole section with Annie Kate Gervais could have been cut out and the overarching feel of the book would have been maintained. Yes, there was a nice little sex scene and it was lovely to see our hero in love. But since I knew the relationship was going to end badly based on my memory of the book and also based on how obvious it was while I was rereading that things were not going to go Will’s way, I didn’t get much enjoyment out of reading these parts. Enough tragedy unfolds for him as the novel progresses. Why have his first relationship go down in flames, too? Maybe Conroy could have had this be the one happy thing that happens to Will in the 1966 – 67 school year instead of just another miserable one. I definitely found myself going back to the romance section of the book when I was younger. I’d never been in love at sixteen; I didn’t know what it was like and this all seemed just so wonderful and beautiful to me. Now, of course, the whole thing is just nonsense. I’ve been in love with my husband for thirteen wonderful years. And my relationship with him is nothing like Will’s relationship with Annie Kate. For that I am glad. I wish Will had found a real love, a love that completes him, not that leaves him broken and battered.
The really exciting mystery aspect of the book picks up in the fourth and final part, appropriately titled “The Ten.” Suspense builds, secrets are revealed, and the covenant Will has with his roommates is blown apart. The friendship Will has with his roommates didn’t seem as wonderful to me this time around, because I knew all along something bad happens with that as well. I didn’t remember what, exactly, when I restarted, but I remembered enough to not take all that goes on in their room at face value. I don’t remember ever suspecting the level of betrayal that Will suffers at the hands of his best friend the first time around, or the tragedies that would strike them all by the close of the book.
Looking back The Lords of Discipline feels like a modern retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy (Do not ask me which one, I honestly have no idea). Don’t get me wrong, I still love this book, and will love it forever. But it’s too much. As a teenager, the crazy emotional rollercoaster this book takes the reader on appealed to me because that’s how I was then. I think that’s how we all are as teenagers. Highest highs and lowest lows and all that. And that’s how I’ve been feeling recently. I spent a significant amount of time as a teenager convinced all of my friends were minutes away from telling me they hated me. And I’ve been having feelings like that for weeks now. It’s way draining to have the emotional maturity of a sixteen-year-old girl.
Would I recommend The Lords of Discipline to anyone after my reread? Yes, absolutely. Like I said, I’ll love it forever. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a book best read by a less impressionable mind. And with that, faithful readers, I set aside childish things, and send my sixteen-year-old self back into the recesses of my brain. I hope she stays there for a while. I don’t have the stamina for her anymore. And I like being happy; that girl lived to be sad.