Charles “Chip” Benedict, the principal character of HONORABLE MEN, is a man who has everything. A Yale graduate, heir to his family’s glass manufacturing company, Benedict has also been blessed with good looks and irresistible charm. Yet, as the novel progresses, Auchincloss shows the reader the dark underside of this WASP prince and the charmed world that created him. Benedict’s first great lie, which results in the expulsion of his classmate (and seducer) Chessy Bogart from St. Luke’s, the boarding school of which Benedict’s grandfather is headmaster, is but a foreshadowing of manipulative behavior yet to come.
The novel follows Benedict from prep school through military service in World War II to Government service in the 1960’s. Along the way, he marries Alida Struthers, a charming debutante, after destroying her engagement to another man. When he becomes a special assistant to the Secretary of State, charged with encouraging government involvement in the Vietnam War, he seems to have found his true vocation, for the position is symbolic of the deceit and false morality upon which Benedict has built his life. Ultimately, Benedict is taught a moral lesson by the fiasco of Vietnam, but not in time to save his marriage to Alida or salvage his relationship with his father.
Like many of Auchincloss’ novels, HONORABLE MEN is set in the very upper reaches of the American class system. The characters (like Auchincloss himself) are members of the old monied families that still exert a strong influence on government, finance, and education. This often caustic portrait of Chip Benedict, heir to money, power, and social status, is also an indictment of the system that produces such potentially harmful men. It is also a story of the Vietnam era and an examination of the causes and consequences of a national disgrace.