By Brad Land
(Random House, 224 pp., $22.95)
Violence, both random and systematic, is the theme of Goat, Brad Land’s powerful debut memoir. From the brutal beating the author endures at the hands of two strangers who hitch a ride with him one night, to the well-planned violence of fraternity hazing, this chronicle never veers from an overwhelming sense that violence is everywhere and inescapable. Even Land’s writing stylea clipped, muscular prose in which sentences often lack critical parts of speech and dialogue omits quotation marksis a form of violence, banging away at the reader like a machine gun.
When the book opens, Land is living at home in small-town Florence, S.C. A sophomore at the local college, he is abducted after a party by two strangers he later calls “the smile” and “the breath.” They rob and beat him, throw him into the trunk of his car, and eventually dump him beside a country road. Bleeding and believing he is near death, Land manages to crawl through the woodsencountering a fox, one of the few nonviolent males in the bookto a secluded house where the occupants phone for help.
At the hospital, doctors tell Land his healing will take months. Meanwhile, Land’s distraught father, a preacher pledged to a life of peace, is driving around the countryside with a knife, searching for his son’s attackers. Land’s friend Tom, too, goes on the hunt that night: “[He] said he was going to kill those fuckers.” Though neither finds the culprits, their manic, eye-for-an-eye impulse continues the memoir’s theme of violence as an inevitable force. Land, already awkward and shy, is so traumatized by his ordeal that he can do little more than mumble from his bed to his brother Brett, “Guns won’t work. Nothing would work. They’re not even real, they’re shadows. They’re not men.”
The police do nothing to mitigate this feeling of powerlessness. Because Land’s written statement says little about the actual abduction“I’m writing about teeth and growls and foxes and smiles and breaths and I know it makes no sense but I know at the same time that every word is true”the police question his account of events. They believe his injuries are essentially his own fault, likely the result of a drug deal gone bad: “What I want to know is this,” one cop says to him. “How come a nice looking boy like you picks up two guys you don’t even know and gives them a ride? A long ride. To the middle of nowhere.”
Land’s message here is simple: We live in a country so helplessly mired in violence that individual culprits hardly matter. The thugs want money; Land’s religious father wants revenge. In either case, success depends on a violence that begets even more violence. So the 75-year sentence one of the nameless muggers receives does nothing to bring Land peace, nor does knowing the other man has fled the state. “They’re gone but they aren’t gone,” Land writes. “I can see them everywhere. The smile and the breath are out walking. Always just at my back.” Land dreams about the attack nightly, often transposing himself from victim to victimizer, fantasizing about revenge. Once begun, there is no escape from violence, not even in dreams.
The memoir spends a few pages glossing over Land’s yearlong recuperation from what his parents call “the incident” and then shifts to Clemson University, where he transfers to be near his brother Brett. A member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, Brett urges Land to pledge, and what follows is an extended and intimate look at the practice of hazing. (Hence the book’s title: Kappa Sigma pledges are called “goats.”)
Where the beginning of the memoir stresses the randomness of American violence, this second part focuses on the way a highly structured organization can employ violence not only as a tool to enforce conformity, but also as an outlet for the need brutalize others. Though hazing rituals are generally understood to be harmless exercises in shared humiliation that unite young men, Land exposes the genuine savagery behind the custom: For his fraternity brothers, the ability to debase someone physically is the measure of manhood; the goats, meanwhile, achieve acceptance into the ranks of manhood by enduring this humiliation.
Land recounts the repeated beatings, the blood and the consuming of human waste, all combined with plenty of booze and an endless supply of sorority women offered up as prizes for surviving the violence. “Next time we go out,” a fraternity brother tells Land, “it’s all the groupie whores you can handle.” In this misogynistic hierarchical structure, the only thing worse than being a goat is being a woman, and violence is what keeps the hierarchy in place.
But what keeps this memoir from being merely a polemic against hazing, or even violence in general, is the sense that while Land the author may be outraged by it, Land the character feels helpless in the face of it, unable to confront it or even to step away. Still reeling from “the incident” a year earlier, Land is so in need of acceptance, so desperate to fit in somewhere, that he finds himself acquiescing to the brutality of the fraternity: “I’m lying but I keep telling myself that I need these guys and that I will like them eventually,” he writes. And that’s what makes reading Goat so troubling: the fact that Land could quit the fraternity at any time but chooses to remain for so long. Indeed, it is only after he does finally quitjust before a fellow pledge dies as the result of a particularly virulent round of hazingthat he recognizes his own complicity in the cycle of violence. He has learned to accept it as just part of the bargain, which makes him in some ways an ally to the force he fears most.
The best survivor memoirs offer a scrupulously honest rendering of both the writer’s powerful feelings and the disquieting events that led to thema difficult trick requiring sufficient distance from the events themselves to keep from being swamped by them but not so much that their emotional impact seems false or trumped up. The difficulty for young writers is that they are still so close chronologically to their material. Land, now 27, overcomes this obstacle with a fierce prose that acts as the ideal counterweight to his own vulnerability. The tension between Land’s tough style and his fragile state of mind has produced an emotionally charged work without exploiting that emotion.
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