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Clueless at Clemson

Inarticulate college memoir is a punishing read


American society has no universal form of "coming of age" ritual, but any young man who wants to be accepted into such organizations as football teams, the armed services, or college fraternities will have to endure some ritualized unpleasantness to gain that acceptance. Having passed through all three of these organizations in my youth, I can say that fraternity initiation, or "hazing," to use the contemporary perjorative term, was by far the worst. Why? The sadism of fraternity hazing exists for its own sake, serving no larger institutional goal than to prove that you will endure any form of abuse or humiliation to gain social acceptance. Acceptance, once gained, then becomes a license to visit those same sadistic practices on the next group, who in turn will do anything to be accepted. This vicious circle of cruelty has produced enough tragedies for many universities to have developed

rigorous anti-hazing policies.According to Brad Land, in his memoir Goat, Clemson University in the early 1990s was not subjecting the Kappa Sigma fraternity to any particular supervision concerning hazing. Part of Land's intention in writing the book, I assume, is to expose these brutal behaviors; thus, he makes no attempt to "fictionalize" the school or the fraternity, and he presents the narrative entirely in first person.

Sure enough, once at Clemson, Brad and his fellow Kappa Sigma pledges endure a variety of torments involving physical and verbal abuse, constant petty humiliation, and generalized anxiety about what will happen next. From my experience, all of Land's descriptions of hazing ring pretty true, and should be shocking to any sensitive, civilized reader. The real shock that comes from Land's attempt at realism and truth-telling, however, arises not from the specific hazing he brings to light, but the vacuous, aimless environment in which it all took place.

Goat begins with an account of the narrator being brutally beaten by two thugs in the course of having his car hijacked. Why did he give a ride to two obviously dangerous guys he didn't know? He was leaving a party, and he was too drunk to remember (though he somehow remembers every blow of the beating in vivid detail). Why did he go to Clemson? His brother went there. Why did he try to join the fraternity? His brother had joined the previous semester. Does he see any connection between his experience as crime victim and his victimization by hazing? No. And so on. In fact, other than the detailed memories of abuse, all of his inner life the narrator can summon up are some vague ruminations about his own boredom and social awkwardness. Needless to say, the reader is offered no keen insights into the human condition. And then there's the shamelessly predictable plotting. Fans of the old Star Trek knew that the nameless crewman who accompanied Kirk and Spock to the menacing planet was as good as dead. Well, the ultimate "victim" in this book might as well have those six letters written across his forehead.

I think what Land does accomplish in Goat, if you can call it an accomplishment, is to document the vulgar, inarticulate passivity of white, privileged, Southern college youth. The characters in the book seem to have vocabularies of 25 to 50 words, the only one of more than three syllables being an obscene epithet beginning with "mother." Young men and women never communicate meaningfully except when drunk or emotionally distraught. At least three times in the course of the book, the narrator is accosted by a drunken (or emotionally distraught) girl who throws herself clumsily at him whether she knows him or not. He never has a clue about how to respond. In fact, he hasn't a clue about much of anything -- nor does anyone else.

What we have here, then, amounts to a form of dorm-room cinema verite, a novelized variation of television "reality" shows like MTV's Real World. The denizens of Real World, though, sound like the Bloomsbury Group compared to the listlessly vicious frat boys of Goat.

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