Hell Is a Young Man: Fraternity by Benjamin Nugent

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At the college I attended, fraternities weren’t formally recognized by the administration. Without frat houses—the ramshackle, portico-embellished kind Animal House made famous—the boys had to display their power in other ways, usually through public hazing. Sometimes, returning home from the library late at night, I glimpsed their outlines on the athletic field near my dorm, where they seemed to be tussling with each other. I could hear the boys’ yelps, the angry, muttered orders. By senior year, the pledges had become the “pledge masters,” tasked with tormenting younger students. Now the former pledges walked around campus more easily, smirking and self-satisfied. They’d claim that the hazing had bonded them together, that they were stronger for it, but I remembered how terrified they’d looked as sophomores, anticipating the evening torture.

It was with a shiver of recognition that I read Benjamin Nugent’s Fraternity, a collection of interlocking short stories about a fictional fraternity at UMass Amherst, which probes the contradictions of frat culture. Fraternities cultivate groupthink but claim to produce strong, individualistic men, primed for careers in politics or business; hazing culture promotes violence and cruelty, yet offers young men opportunities for intimacy that they might otherwise lack. Nugent’s stories are paradoxical, too: alternately rough and sentimental, they boomerang between frat bro clichés (Nugent has noted in an interview that he set out to write in a “particular fratty diction”) and moments of lyrical, existential reflection. The brutality of frat culture, Nugent suggests, is a veneer that hardly masks its devotees’ miseries and insecurities.

Nugent’s stories pull from a number of college tropes involving threatened or actual violence: blurry sexual encounters, juvenile pranks gone wrong, fraught campus politics (one story is called “Safe Spaces”). The American college campus has long been viewed as dangerous territory, a microcosm of broader moral anxieties. In Fraternity, Nugent explores the murky space between childhood and adulthood in which sinning runs rampant: freed from the family, but not yet constrained by work, students enjoy a kind of freedom that nearly always gives way to recklessness. The Delta Zeta Chis, like most undergraduates, lack the emotional wherewithal to resolve conflicts that arise from their drunken, hormone-fueled pursuits. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to. In “Basics,” a Delta brother who believes that he’s had nonconsensual sex looks for a way to apologize to the girl he’s wronged, Sharon. He settles on a handwritten letter, a gesture that plays at seriousness but comes off as hollow, insincere. The effort is there, but the methods and timing are all wrong: too little, too late.

Is intention enough? Nugent’s frat stars are seemingly well-meaning oddballs: more likable than the blustering, macho frat type. (A brother named Pete, “whom everybody loved,” has “abundant ear hair” and “chubby cheeks.”) One gets the sense that Nugent wants to resist the Animal House model, but the supposedly “unproblematic” bro is a type, too. The Deltas resemble the affable, intelligent men I knew at school, who sneered at some fraternity traditions (the paddles, the regalia) but still harassed each other—and women—with a kind of thinly disguised, semi-ironic vitriol. (Can’t you take a joke? was the frequent follow-up to anyone who questioned their “humor.”)

Nugent tries hard to work through current debates in his fictional scenarios. The results can be illuminating and complex, but some of Fraternity’s stories end up reading as pat social commentary. In “Basics,” the would-be assailant, Zach, is assured by his mother that “if the university expelled all the guys who did what you did, they would lose a lot of money.” Ostensibly, this conversation exposes a lesser-known side of the campus rape story: how would a parent respond to news of their child’s sexual misbehavior? Would it really be like this? “If you tell her you’re sorry, in an emotional way, like something really serious happened, she might decide that something really serious happened,” Zach’s mother says, by way of advice. It’s a response that seems too measured and cynical, even attorney-like. And, in hastening to address the conversation around rape—what constitutes sexual assault? How should “gray area” assaults, in which harm isn’t necessarily intended, be punished?—Nugent adopts cliché, suggesting that men are in thrall to their own lust (the old “boys will be boys” argument). Zach feels himself being “guided by instinct,” unable to control himself even after Sharon asks him to stop—even though he knows he should.

The most compelling stories in Fraternity are those that tend satirical, riffing on the mock-militarism that defines fraternity rituals and provides a pretext for male bonding. My college friends who were in frats often described their hazing experiences in the language of war. “We went through hell together,” they’d tell me gravely, “and we had to look out for each other.” The millennial generation is only the second to grow up without a draft, but to many young men, the trauma of war may be unfamiliar, or just unimportant. Heroism appeals: how to access it? In a society that discourages affection among men, violent hazing becomes a way for young men to bond, and to exercise a kind of bravery they have only ever experienced vicariously, through history textbooks.

In “Hell,” a Delta alum, Poumakis, returns to campus to tell the brothers about his experiences in the military, where he befriended, then tortured, civilians. When one of the brothers responds too enthusiastically to his discussion of interrogation tactics, Poumakis suggests sarcastically that they haze their future pledges by putting them in solitary confinement. War is tragic, he tells them, admitting his own PTSD. Why would anyone want to imitate it, especially within the comfortable, manicured spaces of a college campus?

The thrill of this story lies in its slow unfolding. Poumakis seems sympathetic to the brothers at first, but grows frustrated with their insincerity and tone-deaf bravado. His humiliation of Glines, the brother who asks him how they can best torture the pledges, is methodical, and torturous in itself. This is a man the fraternity has brought up too well. Even as he criticizes his younger brothers’ violent tactics, he can’t help but haze them.

But unlike the pledge master, who often plays good cop—easing some tension in the hazing process—Poumakis is not the Deltas’ ally. He’s their Cassandra, warning them that their fascination with violence could go too far. It’s only by the end of the story, though, that we realize his visit to the Delta house was intended to educate, not to entertain.

But have the Deltas absorbed his lessons—or any lessons at all? These are men who seem to know what rape is. They know when apologies are warranted. They know they should be nice, or pretend to be. They’re not actively homophobic, either, but gay men still make them squeamish. Presumably they’ve come to college to learn, to build an adult identity. Instead, they’ve settled for surface-level posing, and emptied themselves of emotion.

Not much good can come of this. The Deltas’ friendships sputter. They wash conflicts away with alcohol, not conversation. Hookups are plentiful, but love evades them. (And the sex, stymied by their unwillingness to communicate, is awkward, fumbling; Nugent captures these scenes in excruciating detail.) These boys don’t really know themselves, and they don’t seem to want to. There’s too much mess beneath the surface: why bother with all of that?

It’s true that this isn’t exactly their fault. As any freshman who has slept through a Gender Studies 101 class can tell you, the enduring gender binary exerts constant pressure on our behavior—especially for the young and impressionable. Masculinity demands of young men strength and conviction, but rarely feeling. But Nugent’s frat stars could stand to spend some time with themselves, admitting their desires and discomforts; they would benefit from confronting their guilt, not brushing it away or seeking absolution through feeble gestures. (A Gender Studies class or two wouldn’t hurt, either.) In “Hell,” Nugent delivers us the moment just before a transformation like this might occur. A spell has been broken: the Deltas are left shell-shocked, their sins and stupidities exposed. That the story cuts off before a real reckoning suggests Nugent’s resignation: he doesn’t seem to think that the frat bro can change.

I do, though, which is why Fraternity fell flat for me in places. It provides—but never goes beyond—a kind of canned criticism. Still, there’s much to admire about Nugent’s style. The effect of “Hell,” and another story, “Ollie the Owl,” is a little like waiting for a drug to kick in: their force is felt suddenly, and makes you reel a little. In “Ollie,” the Deltas experience a series of mysterious attacks from an invisible aggressor. Eventually, they realize that the frat insignia, a wooden owl clock outfitted with a vibrating dildo, has come to life and gone rogue. It’s a brutal but oddly funny story, one that pits the Delta platoon against an absurd enemy. Here is the war they wanted—far less heroic than expected. (The owl launches attacks by violently thrusting itself at its victims, “the way a dog humps at your leg.”) But the Deltas, oblivious, still think of themselves as defeated soldiers, lurching away from the battlefield.

If these men don’t know themselves, they don’t know much about other people, either. Nugent shows that the secrecy and cruel in-jokes the fraternity fosters have the effect of drawing young men away from the world, into stifling “safe spaces” of their own. Fraternity’s opening story, “God,” centers on a Delta brother, “Oprah”—named so, he admits, because “there were books in my room and I asked questions.” Oprah harbors a secret obsession with the Delta president, Caleb Newton (called “Nutella” because he is “sweet”), though he knows he can’t express those feelings. After Nutella ejaculates prematurely during an encounter with another student, Melanie, she writes a satirical, mock epic poem about him and passes it around campus. The poem delight the brothers, eager to see their leader’s power diminished. Oprah takes it at face value, as a panegyric. (Ironically, he isn’t a very good reader.) By standing in for what he can’t say, Melanie’s poem provides some solace for Oprah, and becomes a secret project he feels he can finish: “I loved Melanie for writing it. I also felt I was her secret collaborator, for in my head I was contributing lines.” But Oprah’s love for Nutella remains unfinished, unspoken.

Sometimes—rarely—intimacy is achieved in these stories, and desperately consumed. In “Cassiopeia,” the anonymous narrator, a freshman, stumbles into a fraternity party, where he meets Oprah. They flirt clumsily under the mean, watchful eyes of other party-goers, then return to Oprah’s room in the Delta house. On Frat Row, the narrator realizes, “running off with the boy beside me would be an act of defiance.” But the narrator’s attraction to Oprah quickly becomes more than just a point to prove. A previous sexual encounter with another freshman, a girl, left him feeling isolated, but hooking up with a boy is different: “I forgot who I was, and what I stood for, and I would have done anything he asked me to do.” There’s transcendence to be found in giving yourself over to another: this is also how the fraternity pledge, swearing fealty to his new community, might feel. But whereas Oprah and his lover experience something restorative and awesome—the fruits of desires they’ve long repressed—the pledge is tormented, and asked to swallow his discomfort.

Nugent is right to suggest that queerness—however furtive—has a place in the frat. Fraternity owes something to E. M. Forster’s Maurice, in which the all-male Oxford campus, itself a kind of fraternity, becomes the site of clandestine gay cruising. (And Nugent’s descriptions of private, transcendent love echo Forster’s own earlier visions: in their secret encounters, Maurice’s male lovers live “more fully than either saint or sensualist.”) But is it only closeted frat bros who can love each other? Fraternity doesn’t furnish other options, which seems like an oversight: platonic love, no less than romantic love, finds a breeding ground in the fraternity. In college, I sometimes heard straight frat bros speak about each other with a kind of fierce devotion. Then, catching themselves, they’d turn away in embarrassment, startled by an intensity of feeling they knew they ought to repress. Nugent’s stories seem to suffer from the same problem these men did. Like a one-armed hug or a fist bump, they express some emotion, but leave much unsaid.

It’s strange to consider fraternities at a time in which these social groups no longer dominate campus life. The few colleges that have returned for in-person semesters have prohibited gatherings, leaving former frat houses bereft. Jungle juice and the all-night rager seem like souvenirs from a distant past, to be studied anthropologically. Fraternity could be seen as a kind of retrospective on the frat bro: a “What Was the Hipster?” in fiction form, for a similarly vexed cultural figure. But its meditations on male adolescence—with all its grim paradoxes, its fears and confusions—also transcend the frat. Frats are the natural outcropping of societal pressures: an “acceptable” way for college men to find the solidarity they covet, and to test out the authority they’ll be asked to perform for the rest of their lives. No college student needs to join one, and yet we understand why they do. As long as there are young men who want connection, and a culture that fails to instruct them, to take their anxieties and desires seriously, there will be frats—and eager, miserable boys to fill them.

Sara Krolewski is a writer and graduate student in NYU's Cultural Reporting & Criticism program, most recently published in Bookforum. More from this author →