‘Lord of the Flies,’ Redux

If you give humans an opportunity to revert to their animal nature, they will take it, William Golding seemed to be saying in his 1954 novel, “Lord of the Flies.” His ensemble cast is a group of school boys who become stranded on a small island. Thoroughly English and, thus, civilized, the boys begin their ordeal of survival by governing themselves. A cynic might suggest that the boys, being English, have set forth an Imperialistic form of rule. In any case, their experiment goes abysmally wrong and their resulting behavior devolves toward the bestial.

In the 50-odd years since it first appeared, Golding’s cautionary tale has taken on the mythic impetus of conventional wisdom: Without order, we revert to our animal nature.

Coincidental with publication of “Lord of the Flies,” Stanley Milgram, a bright, eager political scientist turned psychologist, published findings in “Obedience to Authority,” then went on to become a cause célèbre by being denied tenure at Harvard, thanks to The Milgram Experiment.

This disturbing study demonstrated that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

At about the same time, in the same Petri dish, you might say, two other events were introduced: the U.S. active involvement in the affairs of Viet Nam and the emergence of a fictional character, half-Native American, half-German, who became an icon of betrayed individuality. I refer, of course, to John Rambo.

These elements form a lovely background against which to introduce another iconic slice of the literary pie, Glendon Swarthout’s memorable “Bless the Beasts and Children.” In many ways, the Swarthout novel is a rebuttal to “The Lord of the Flies,” showing how a group of misfits who have been placed in a so-called survival school in Arizona. In its promotional literature and ads, Box Canyon Boys’ Camp speaks of inspiring self-confidence, building the framework of manhood, nurturing individual goals and talents. “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy.” Werner Erhard’s “est” with cowboy boots. Landmark with cell phones. In this setting, our six protagonists have arrived and if you chose to connect the setting with some of the Stanley Milgram studies, connect away.

The boys bunk together, six victims of a Darwinian system, which seems without fail to have each individual come to his place in the stratified atmosphere of the camp. Our boys, the six we will follow at close range, are called the Bedwetters because, in fact, one of them still does. We also meet their parents, the ones who sent them to this place, and the hopes these parents had for transformations in their sons. To Swarthout’s credit, no one in this novel is demonized; even the least caring of the camp counselors, a lad named Wheaties, is given traits to be respected.

It would be difficult and unfair to discuss the primary goal these six boys set out to perform. That goal will become apparent soon enough. In yet another tribute to Swarthout’s ability to invite sympathy and empathy, we are quickly made to care for the cause that brings the Bedwetters together on their precarious trek through the teen years and toward the outer reaches of manhood.

John Cotton is the 16-year-old counselor who inherits the Bedwetters. His mother collects men, both husbands and boyfriends. Cotton can put up with that, but his own eye is on accomplishments that range beyond making money. In many ways, he is the lead character, leaving us with the poignant revelation of his hope that the Viet Nam conflict lasts long enough for him to join.

Two of Cotton’s charges, the Lally brothers, are at constant odds, with themselves and with the expectations their family has of them. Gerald Goodenow, a notably poor student, literally grows faint at the entrance of a new school – and he has been to a number of them. Now 14, he knows he is too dependent on his mother, but is caught in the bind of his mother doing nothing to end that dependence. Sammy Shecker tries hard at everything he does – too hard. The son of a Jerry Lewis-like comedian, Sammy tries to use humor to cover the pain of life in his father’s shadow. Lawrence Teft III has a violent temper that seems to have a direct link to the high expectations his parents have of him – expectations he is unable to meet. Teft’s true gift seems to reside in his criminal tendencies.

The novel begins with what is largely considered a no-no, a dream experienced by John Cotton, which forces him abruptly awake and shaking with fear. Talk to Elmore Leonard about using the contents much less starting a novel with a dream. Swarthout not only brings it off, he ties it directly to the mission the Bedwetters undertake.

Moving away from the main action in and near Box Canyon Boys’ Camp to relevant home and school life of the principals, Swarthout manages to give this young ensemble cast a plausible background, creating a mounting suspense while we begin to understand the true nature of the mission the Bedwetters undertake. Seeing the reason for the mission allows us to project ahead in our imaginations, where we can see the effect their actions will have on each boy.

Ah, there; the magic word. Yes, this is a boys’ book until the cutoff age of about 20. There is a fork in the road where, for a few years, boys and girls deserve the opportunity to see their coming-of-age issues dealt with through the medium of first-hand empathy. The only women in “Bless the Beasts and Children” don’t appear in present time; they are mothers, step-mothers, fathers’ girlfriends. They hang in uncertain abeyance as these young protagonists sort their feelings about them. By their actions in present time, the Bedwetters are redefining their relationships with these shadowy influences. They also get an opportunity to see and discuss a motion picture, “The Professionals,” an iconic film with Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin, which in a lovely trail of irony, leads them to their inspired mission.