Life at a Southern military college circa 1966--with all the predictable hazing horrors and raunchy camaraderie; unfortunately, however, though Conroy (The Great Santini) clearly knows this territory first-hand, his sharp recall is skewed by haphazard melodramatics and all but drowned in the wordy, repetitious, sentimental posturing of an insufferable narrator-hero. This is cadet Will McLean, a Southern/Irish/country boy who entered Carolina Military Institute in Charleston to honor his dead father, hung in there as a quasi-rebel/basketball-star, and now: ""I have a need to bear witness to what I saw there. I want to tell you how it was. I want precision. I want a murderous, stunning truthfulness. I want to find my own singular voice for the first time. . . ."" And so on--for 500 pages, starting with Will's senior year (suicide of a persecuted plebe), then flashing back to Will's own first-year ordeal of Hell Nights, tortures, humiliations (""I will try to isolate that one lonely singer who gathered the fragments of my plebe year and set the screams to music""), then taking up senior year again. Throughout, Will waxes lyrical on a handful of themes: ambivalent love for aristocratic Charleston (""Something in me was congruent with this land""); his hate-love feeling for the Institute; his awareness of his own self-righteousness (which, strangely, doesn't make it any less grating); his ""feeling of incredible tenderness, the unbearable, unspeakable fragility of the love"" for his roommates--effeminate Charleston ""honey prince"" Tradd, near-Neanderthal Italians ""Pig"" and Mark. And a few threads of plot do poke through the verbiage: Will's attempts to protect the Institute's first black plebe; his cute, gushy First Love (""I passed dreams into her and received hers on the black rocks beside the Atlantic"") with an already pregnant, kooky Charleston lass (who'll drop him when her baby is born dead); campus rumors about a secret clan called The Ten that drives out unwanted plebes with super-tortures. But it's not until the last 150 pages that melodrama really takes over: Will tracks down The Ten, observes the sadists in action (electro-genital torture of the black plebe), and nearly gets expelled as he and Mark nobly battle the Ten--whose members include the Institute president and one of Will's nearest and dearest. Even this fairly surefire hero stuff is muddled, however--by the gratuitous railroad-track suicide of Pig, expelled for a bona fide Honor Code violation: it's as if Conroy has merely shuffled together a half-dozen different plots, unable to commit himself to any of them. All in all, then: an intermittently vivid, wildly overwritten mix of pretension, pulp, and vigor--which, like The Great Santini, might make a workable movie scenario when stripped down to essentials.