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The high price of brotherhood

Male bonding brutality are Land's focus

Goat: A Memoir

By Brad Land

Random House, 210 pp., $22.95

This memoir of a teenage abduction and beating, followed by the supposedly mock persecutions of fraternity hazing, reads as credibly as first-rate fiction. Its impetus is partly personal and therapeutic, partly social and cultural. The first-person narrator, Brad, suffers from post-traumatic shock syndrome, much like a combat veteran. Reminiscent of Tim O'Brien writing about Vietnam War veterans, in ''Goat," Brad Land writes about male sensitivity and brutality; about the fear of young death; about conscience; about courage and cowardice; and about the conflict of collective will and personal integrity. His style throughout is minimalist, using the present tense and a sharply tuned ear for youth vernacular.

The powerful opening section initiates readers into the terror of abduction. Two car thieves, teenagers themselves, ask Brad for a ride home from a hometown fraternity party. His younger brother Brett has forsaken him at the party for girls. Brad mistakes the thieves for locals and lets them into his car, the one he calls ''the smile" into the front seat, and the one he calls ''the breath" into the back. Police later ask him why he let them into the car; and the question remains psychologically troubling. However, as the duo overpowers Brad, we are forced to feel as he feels. ''The breath" 's arm locks his throat from the back seat: ''the forearm comes from behind me, fills the space between my chin and breastbone. I can feel my neck bend and cave, my Adam's apple cracking and the light shrinks around me. The smile next to me. It's motionless, still as the moon." They rob, strangle, kick, and beat him. They lock him in the car trunk; he is taken out again on a back road and expects to die: ''I am calm. It spreads over me like rain. . . . I am waiting for a gun's steel . . . waiting for my eyes to go black. . . . When the car starts I am waiting for the tires to break my skull." Instead the thieves drive away, and Brad, left in a hallucinatory state, manages to crawl and stagger to rescue. ''The breath" is soon captured by police, but ''the smile" escapes, and Brad feels them both ''out walking. Always just at my back."

The second section follows Brad, a year later, at Clemson University, where Brett has joined a fraternity. Transferring in as a junior, Brad pledges Brett's fraternity: ''Even though something thinks it's wrong. I make it quiet." Psychologically fragile, Brad needs the fraternity brothers ''to be like Brett." But he soon discovers that the benefits of fraternity -- campus status, easy sex, hard drinking, and the pretense of loyalty -- come at the cost of having ''physical and mental discomfort, physical abuse, and degrading activities" inflicted upon him and in particular on the pledge Will Fitch, while his real brother keeps his distance and is disillusioned with ''these people" and with Clemson itself. Given license, the fraternity brothers prove to be as sadistic and brutal as the car thieves. Brad speaks with Will about quitting. Brad obsesses about death and shakes uncontrollably: ''I don't want to do this pledge thing anymore because I am scared of everything, of waking at night, but I'm also terrified of what I will be without the fraternity, that I will be nothing." When he confesses these feelings to Brett, Brett says, ''I'll tell them you're done."

Staying at school afterward, Brad feels that he has ''vanished." His ''dreams still come every night," and he identifies with a girl who apparently drowns herself during sorority hazing. Will continues as a pledge and endures even worse degradation, yet as they drive home together for vacation, he tells Brad that he is still worried about the final vote, and that ''it should've been me . . . who quit." Just as Brad returns from vacation, he hears from Brett that Will has indeed been voted out and that he has died that morning of a heart attack. ''No one dies from a vote," Brett says, but Brad insists otherwise.

At Will's funeral, the two most oppressive fraternity brothers attend, implying some sense of guilt, but Brad sees them as villains. He also has a vision of Brett in the coffin rather than Will: ''I tell myself it will never happen like this. . . . I can feel the blood throbbing through us both. I can see the cells moving through the raised veins of our hands and arms, I can see the hair growing on my brother's head, I can see his heart pulse and breathe and I know then that Brett and I will live forever."

The book's idea of brotherhood is to love, to feel for and with, and to envision the suffering of your kindred other. In his imagination, Brad does this for Will. He imagines himself being Will in the final moments of dying. He hears Will's voice from the grave and has an epiphany: ''We kick him, but then he stands, and Brett's still there but everyone else is gone, and we're outside in the quad, we're all huddled together, breathing the speckled light." At the very last, both Brad and Brett quit Clemson and they visit the site of Brad's earlier abduction. Brad now feels that Brett has participated in his ordeal. The reader, too, has been initiated. Brad is released.

Are fraternities inherently evil? Instead of being the laboratories of democracy (as Barry Goldwater saw them in the 1960s), are they institutions of brutality, somehow modeling social Darwinism? Land's indictment seems as sweeping as that of private schools by George Orwell (in his essay ''Such, Such Were the Joys") or Frank Conroy (in the first chapter of ''Stop-Time"), and yet this reader remains undecided whether Brad stands effectively for the feminine principle needed to reform such macho institutions; or whether Brad's demons, rooted in tensions that precede his abduction and that are never fully explored, are more his problem than ours.

DeWitt Henry's ''The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts" won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel. The founding editor of Ploughshares, he teaches at Emerson College.

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