My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've been reading Conroy for nearly as long as he's been writing. I (unconsciously) stayed away from this book for the reasons that I identify closely with the confessional, humorous style of Conroy, I identify (as do so very many readers) with the plain speak with which he describes the tragedy of victimization, and because I spent a cruelly lonely year at Randolph-Macon Women's College while a dear friend of mine attended VMI.
Now in my 60's, I have not forgotten the particular strain of savagery that preys on the youthful nor the uniquely naive quality of grief that steals the dreams from the young. But I have the perspective of decades' worth of joys and anguish in which to temper my own memories and my reading of Conroy's writing about the same period in his life.
Yet again, I found this book to be another Conroy masterpiece. But this time, I found not one book, written in one voice, as I am used to, but several pieces of writing which merged together, almost as if interrelated short stories converging to form a perfect whole. In the case of this particular subject matter, this approach of using--I shall call it different "voices"--although the effect is not quite as strong as that, works well from the aspect of content as well as process.
With regard to content, Conroy has a wide variety of subject matter to convey. There is the entire plebe system and cadre system, as well as the Whole Man theory (which, is actually unique in ways to the two state-sponsored military schools more so than to the US military academies, a concept known basically only to people familiar with both). Then there is the fleshing out of the cadets' stories, including a break in the description of their senior year to go back through a very harrying plebe year. In contrast to all this, Conroy painstakingly describes the beauty he finds (ironically) everywhere around the "Academy of Horrors" in beautiful [or is it really beautiful?] Charleston. Accompanying this story is the story of how Will came to appreciate that beauty, through his relaxed and casual relationship with Adelaide. Last, there is the isolated story of Will's convoluted relationship with Annie Kate.
Each of these stories is given its own lovingly crafted, unhurried time. There seems to be a beat, just the shortest pause, a minor change in tone as we go back and forth from one to the other.
The thread of continuity in this book is Will's running discourse on himself: never quiet, never sure, never complimentary. always confused. BUT...occasionally gifting us something true, something as real as the cold concrete floors of the barracks. Something we had best remember. Something we had best figure out. Conroy is not writing a mystery novel here. He does not want this to be any harder on his reader than necessary.
In spite of his care, he dedicates himself completely and utterly to the central truth of this piece of writing, which is what makes all of it, every part of it work together, and in the aftermath, upon reflection, just plain work.
That central truth is that a boy, even a bright, conscientious, nearly grown boy, is not in a position yet to understand, or to figure out, that absolutely nothing in his world is as it seems. And worse, that what seems naturally beautiful is, indeed, sinfully contrived.
Conroy literally takes us (with those few caveats I mentioned) on the entire ride with him, as if Will had written his memoires within weeks of leaving the Institute.
The result is masterful. When you read this book, you will be frightened, but know you are in hands that care painfully for the exquisite exactness of the English language and for the exquisite exactness with which he conveys his meaning to his reader.
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