Like debut author Brad Land, I'm a shamefaced former frat boy, and can testify that his slim, minimalist, and affecting memoir speaks to the peculiar brand of male weakness and group-think that puts impressionable pledges through the ringer on campus each fall. Goat (Random House, $22.95) has been getting a lot of buzz, perhaps because some expect it to blow the lid off all the misogyny, racism, homophobia, hazing, date raping, and privileged white male hetero debauchery that presumably take place within the typical frat house. Based on my experiences at Columbia University's Phi Epsilon Pi, however, there's no such thing—I just remember keggers, watching TV, and playing table soccer. It was boring, not boorish. If you want a more damning view of the same subject, look for the 1998 HBO documentary Frat House (coincidentally co-directed by the guy behind Old School and the Starsky & Hutch movie). Land isn't one to sensationalize or generalize from his experiences. Goat is all about him, not about the system.
Goat opens in North Carolina, with the 18-year-old Land unwisely giving a ride to two strangers, who beat him mercilessly, steal his car, stuff him in the trunk, and later dump him, dazed and bleeding, at the side of the road. This incident and Land's halting recovery make up the first part of Goat; the second details his experiences at South Carolina's Clemson University, where he transfers the following year as a junior and willingly subjects himself to the violent, humiliating process of fraternity initiation.
How bad is it? Hardly the Marines. There's forced binge drinking, petty errand running, constant humiliation, and a game in which the Kappa Sigma brothers hurl footballs at close range at the heads of the "goats" (pledges) with enough force to cause concussions. What's the payoff? Sorority girls come on to him at parties. Social doors open. He comes closer to his goal of "being normal." By enduring, he'll seem like less of a wimp than some accused him of being after the carjacking. Yet inevitably, of course, he finally sees a connection between those two phantom assailants (never named) and his fraternity tormentors.
There's not a lot of context or analysis to either section. In a short book made up of short sentences and short paragraphs (reworked in a series of writing programs that evidently eschewed commas), Land's laconic style may accurately reflect the mind-set of an insecure, naive kid who only wants to belong to a cooler, more powerful group. ("I can't help but feel that they're stars or something.") Today, however, at nine years' remove, one feels the young author (now 27) could try a little harder to hone sentiments like, "I'm always nervous and scared, and I don't know why." Even after reading the book, neither do we. His family seems loving and close. Every adolescent may be confused, but Land makes himself more enigmatic than any teen has a right to be.
Goat could be placed in the current canon of victim lit, and Land often does come across as one of those mopey, depression-on-their-sleeve, indie-rock types OD'ing on their own sensitivity. Too much of his book tends toward the "I smoked another cigarette" school of profundity. Intellectually, he appears incapable of distinguishing between random violence and socially sanctioned and codified violence. This is all the more frustrating when he correctly identifies the latter within the very structure of Clemson—as at the football stadium, known as Death Valley, where the coach tells his players their mission is "to send people home limping . . . [you] are there to inflict pain."
Within its limitations, Goat does convey what it's like to be young and lost and callow in a brutally indifferent arena. It's not a fraternity exposé but an honest, if willfully mannered, account of a Southern '90s collegiate world of NASCAR, the Clash, squalid dorms, chewing tobacco, and button-down shirts. (The coeds, however, barely register as real people; when they kiss the sulky author, it's as random as his assault.) If Land escaped that culture to become a writer and heal his wounds, well, good for him. Still, you can't help but remember how other young men of Land's same age suffered so much more by fighting in any number of American wars, present and past. Their choosing to accept the consequences of violence for a cause, whether bravely or complainingly, ultimately makes Land's wash-out catharsis seem small, like his book.
Brad Land will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Fri., March 12.