The cruelties that human beings visit upon each other in their quest to belong to some larger community are varied in their details, but depressingly monotonous in their ubiquity. Brad Land's Goat adds new details with some fanfare; Land is a former MacDowell Colony Fellow, and his subject is an American tradition conveniently close at hand, yet eternally shrouded in mystery: pledging to a fraternity.
Actually, Land tells two stories, connected by their common thread of victimization and abuse. Rashly consenting to give two strangers a ride home from a college party, Land winds up in a ditch, brutally beaten and robbed. The next year, he transfers to Clemson, determined to follow his golden-boy older brother in pledging to Kappa Sigma.
Wooed by frat brothers during rush, Land embarks on the pledge period with only an inadequate sense of dread and a vague warning from his now-aloof brother. Hazing commences, complete with physical, psychological, juvenile, sometimes seemingly half-hearted, and sometimes thoroughly vicious displays of the power endowed by a manufactured hierarchy of brother over pledge. Nearly every hazing exercise has something in common with the abduction still fresh in Land's mindsome demand for submission, sometimes even another car ride to a place he has no desire to go.
Land's dual tale would have more immediacy and visceral grip if his prose weren't filtered through layers of writing-workshop literaturization. Every dozen pages or so, he breaks into a stilted stream of consciousness: "And I tell them it was the smile, it was the breath but they are ghosts, you won't catch them I say, they're shadows I say, poof I say, fucking gone man, you can't even see them I say...," and so on for a paragraph that must have sounded great in the cigarette haze of a creative nonfiction confab.
But in spite of that stylistic pretension, Land touches the raw bone of some hard truths. Writing about his mother's inability to come to grips with the beating, he notes: "She can't even watch movies because they stay in her head so long." He's even capable of depth in his more poetic moments, particularly as his story nears its end. Goat is too stylized by half, and poorly sustained, but every so often the subterranean connections glimpsed in Land's experience emerge with agonizing honesty.