Almost nothing of note has been written about the esoterics of the service academy existence. "Dress Gray," despite its many literary flaws, at least begins to fill that void. The author, a third-generation West Point graduate and grandwon of a noted World War II general, offers the unannointed some insight into the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of hell on the Hudson.
The novel has a thin plot likely to cheer movie producers while infuriating hard-line military advocates. A homosexual West Point cadet is murdered. The autopsy shows he had sex with another man immediately prior to his death. The commandant of cadets, an ambitious young general who represents all the evils of the "New Army Officer," seizes upon the incident to further his career. He and his cronies falsify the autopsy report and record the death as accidental, hoping the coverup will explode in the unwitting superintendent's face, thus causing his relief and replacement by the ambitious commandant. The commandant is well-connected politically with a high Defense Department official who was personally involved, and who may or may not have had an affair, with the dead cadet. The superintendent is too "old Army," too crotchety and trusting to realize he is being conned.
One cadet, Rysam P. Slaight III, who is miraculously connected to at least a half-dozen key figures, takes on the entire West Point establishment and beats them, uncovering the killer, another homosexual cadet who has graduated and is killed in Vietnam only days before the case is broken. The cadet who breaks the case then abandons any notions of publicizing the coverup, and instead resigns from the academy, driving happily into the sunset to be with his millionaire girlfriend in New York City.
Interwoven through this series of events are a plethora of lengthy diversions and essays that convey the author's major points, and his major contributions to our understanding of service academy life. These essays are for the most part just that -- essays -- and thus the primary contribution of the book becomes its weakest point. Toward the end of the novel, Truscott notes that Slaight "had begun talking to his classmates and had ended up lecturing them." Ironically the author's own effort suffers from this same condition. He begins writing a novel, and quickly losses confidence in the characters he has chosen to tell the story. Thereafter, the characters become wooden, and the author makes the points himself in a narrative so casual it becomes irritating, spiced with foul language that emanates not from characters in their natural vernacular but from the author in his. At other points the reader is subjected to page after page of lectures couched inside quotation marks, a technique reminiscent in many ways of Ayn Rand's messianism in "Atlas Shrugged." In short, Truscott ceases to show the academy through his characters, and settles on lenghy diatribes that ring not with humanistic truth but with his own biases.
Nonetheless, Truscott has a feel for the innuendo, the paradoxes of the service academy existence, and the book deserves to be read for these observations. If the characters on both sides are too tightly drawn, too black-and-white, the resulting tension provides good grist for comment on the moral and ethical questions inherent in the sweatbox of academy life. For instance, Truscott shows how the honor code absoluteness is at once the cornerstone of academy existence, and at the same time a potential trap for an unsuspecting cadet: "Your honor" can be used against you.
"Dress Gray" lacks the power and insight of such first-rate noncombat military fiction as "From Here to Eternity" and "Guard of Honor," but in that it breaks new ice and provides some inside views for those unfamiliar with the workings of the service academies, it is a legitimate addition to that particular genre.