Webb, James H(enry), Jr. Carey Winfrey - Essay

Carey Winfrey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In James Webb's taut second novel ["A Sense of Honor"],… he returns to terrain he has personally reconnoitered. A 1968 graduate of Annapolis, he writes as only an insider could of that peculiarly costly education. His uncanny ear for the raunchy vocabulary of military life (he must have taken notes) is matched by his evocation of its spit-and-polish claustrophobia and its inherent contradictions: loneliness in the midst of camaraderie, brutality mixed with decency, pain with pride, honor with death and destruction….

It's a shame that the principal plot covers familiar ground. John Dean … is a sensitive, scholarly and totally unmilitary plebe who'd better shape up or ship out. Fogarty, a gung-ho first classman, decides to hasten Dean's maturation by methods that, though officially outlawed, are unofficially tolerated. Under Fogarty's harsh but well-intentioned "guidance," Dean begins to get with the program. But which way is Fogarty's moral compass pointing?

Mr. Webb manages to keep the balance so delicate that readers will have to decide that one—as well as run a number of other ethical shoals. The only hint the author gives us of his own feelings is to be found in the words of a disillusioned, war-wounded Academy marine. "I love the military all the way down to my nerve-damaged toes," he tells his girlfriend. "It's the chicken-feed I hate."

It is Mr. Webb's considerable accomplishment that even readers who know nothing about the military will understand that.

Carey Winfrey, "Trouble at the Academy," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 5, 1981, p. 15.