Set in 1967 at a barely-fictionalized version of The Citadel, Conroy’s own alma mater, The Lords of Discipline follows indifferent cadet Will McLean and his friends through a turbulent senior year. After surviving their school’s infamously brutal plebe year, with it’s torturous sweat parties and constant harassment, Will and his three roommates are determined to graduate and wear their class ring with pride. Two of Will’s roommates are fairly stereotypical Italian-Americans from the Northeast, Mark Santoro and the meathead Dante “Pig” Pignetti, while the third is Tradd St. Croix, the scion of one of the oldest families in town and a legacy at the college. The four have developed an incredibly close bond and protect one other, whatever it takes.
Will, the protagonist and narrator, struggles between his desire to prove himself worthy of wearing the ring and his need to set himself apart from the military mindset of his classmates. He opposes the war in Vietnam and is the only member of his class yet to sign up to join the Army after graduation. He is also one of the few cadets to openly welcome the school’s first African-American cadet. This latter position leads to a world of trouble when the administration asks him to look out for the cadet in question, Tom Pearce, and make sure he gets through the tough first year despite what is sure to be relentless pressure from segregationist students.
It’s at this point that it becomes necessary to mention that there are certainly some elements of Conroy’s novel that can be considered problematic. The big one is that this is decidedly not a story about the first student to integrate the Institute, and his part in the narrative is small. Pearce is a non-factor as far as the plot is concerned and his character is sketched-in at best. There is also the language. Accurate though it may be to the period, the “n-word” and other slurs are used freely here, including by characters we’re meant to sympathize with, including Will himself.
Will is also a frustrating character sometimes. He is witty and likable but also deeply flawed, as the novel itself acknowledges. He has a sort of hero complex and a need for people not just to like him but to praise him. Though the book investigates these flaws, that investigation too often takes a backseat to tales of Will being awesome and doing things brilliantly. Looking at Will as a probable stand-in for the author himself is rather illuminating and not in the best sense.
Still, Conroy is masterful at weaving a tale that draws in the reader. As Will and his roommates try to discover the truth about a rumored secret society that may be trying to run Pearce and other undesirable cadets out of school, they start to become targets themselves. Unsure of who they can trust besides each other, their attempts to extricate themselves from trouble and make it to graduation are enthralling. It all leads up to a shocking conclusion that packs an emotional wallop.