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Fraternity looks at Greek life’s softer side

Fraternity by Benjamin Nugent. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pages.

The most unflattering stereotype of a frat guy I might conjure—an alcoholic dullard with a penchant for reggae and date rape—is also conditionally true, as anyone who’s attended a freshman week party on frat row can attest. From my vantage point, and perhaps yours, as a reader of this website, it’s easy to relegate such characters to the realm of “people I don’t want to know” and presume they lack the rich interiority of those who read books.

Maybe so, but interiority matters little to a man of action, and the snide condescension of liberal arts students has never stopped frat guys from acting—or moving—up. Beyond the keggers and theme parties of on-campus Greek life is a vast professional and political network stretching through all of America’s institutions: in his 2007 book Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige, University of Kentucky professor Alan DeSantis found that 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives and 76 percent of United States senators throughout history have belonged to frats, along with 85 percent of Supreme Court Justices since 1910 and eighteen presidents since 1877. There have been more senators pledged to Sigma Chi (thirteen) than Black women (two). While membership isn’t an automatic ticket to the promised land, those with the instincts for pulling the levers of power may find their destiny unfolding while hitting a beer bong during rush week.

In fact, the jackass I described above could just as well be Supreme Court Justice and Delta Kappa Epsilon brother Brett Kavanaugh, who was credibly accused of attempted rape, once got involved a bar fight after attending a UB40 show, and as we all know, loves beer. However rightfully derided Greek life may be, as a locus of American power it’s not so easily dismissed or underestimated. It’s with that in mind that I opened up Fraternity, the debut short story collection by Benjamin Nugent comprising eight interconnected stories set in the fictional Delta Zeta Chi chapter at what is supposed to be UMass Amherst, sometime between Barack Obama’s second term and Donald Trump’s first. By his own accord, Nugent found inspiration in the anthropological mission that good art can occasionally provide, telling Esquire, “If any culture is seen as monolithic, that’s what’s tempting about it. You can go in there and correct the public perception.”

Beyond the keggers and theme parties of on-campus Greek life is a vast professional and political network stretching through all of America’s institutions.

Unlike the many authors who write novels fictionalizing their school years, Nugent (who studied at Reed College and the Iowa Writers Workshop) never belonged to a fraternity. Instead, the details and dynamics of Fraternity were accumulated through heavy research: interviews, eavesdropping on campus, extensive usage of Idealized through this received wisdom and rendered into narratively compelling characters, the brothers of Delta Zeta Chi are not the raving drunks and violent abusers found when opening yet another viral article about some fraternity’s repugnant indiscretions, but somewhat—to use a controversial word—likable. They’re playfully homosocial. They let girls play their video games. They mostly understand what rape is. We first enter their world through the emotionally intuitive eyes of a brother called Oprah, nicknamed so “because there were books in my room and I asked questions.”

In Nugent’s lead story, “God,” Oprah narrates the Deltas’ obsession with their president Caleb Newton, aka Nutella, who’s worshipped because his positive qualities inspire the rest of them to self-betterment. “He was not the most massive brother,” Oprah tells us, “but he was the most a man, the one who neither played video games nor rejoiced at videos in which people were injured.” When a hookup named Melanie induces Nutella into premature ejaculation and then writes a poem about the entire ordeal (opening lines: “Who is this soldier who did not hold his fire / When the whites of my eyes were shrouded / In fluttering eyelids?”), the brothers adorn her with her own nickname: God. Who but God could tame the most majestic of the brothers, bring his vehicular genitals—“they reminded me of a Volvo sedan in that they were unspectacular but shaped so as to imply solidity and soundness”—to a halt?

The brothers worship her, and because she is indifferent to this worship, their love only grows, to the point where she’s so respected that at a raucous party she can avoid the insistent heterosexual mating ritual altogether: “No one hovered beside her and asked her questions about her classes, holding his beer at chest height like a mantis to display his biceps.” God’s power stems from her ability to interrogate the masculine performance of brotherhood through her unscalable hotness. When she and Oprah eventually hook up, he realizes he’s in love with Nutella because he can’t stop picturing him while they have sex, even at this moment when he should be fully invested in his conquest of the unconquerable. (The perceptive reader may have already guessed as much by the fond description he lavishes upon his frat president’s dick.)

Instead of freeing him, the revelation plunges him into an identity crisis. The brothers may jokingly objectify each others’ chiseled bodies, but only to a mutually acceptable point, and Oprah senses that if his secret is outed, he stands to lose all the benefits of brotherhood. He will not join them at the consulting firm destined to employ them all, where—of course—Nutella will be in charge. He will be outside, literally and metaphorically, and alone.

As Nugent’s line about “correct[ing] the public perception” suggests, Fraternity is a book interested in fleshing out a stereotyped demographic—otherwise known as representation. And one of representation’s secret promises, beyond lowering barriers to entry traditionally scaled only by the Ivy-educated and melanin-deprived, and fattening the bank accounts of those lucky enough to do the representing, is to seed understanding among otherwise unfeeling audiences. These interventions need not flow exclusively toward the less advantaged; there is plenty of media devoted to illuminating the inner lives of the disgustingly rich (Succession), the disgustingly beautiful (Too Hot to Handle), or the disgustingly desirable by every social metric (any celebrity memoir, take your pick).

So rather than focus on the beastliness of frat bros, Nugent works hard to excavate the fragile humanity drawing each of his characters to this institution. Zach, the protagonist of “Basics,” finds himself genuinely connecting with a woman for the first time in his romantic career—“he was twenty-two years old, a senior in college, he’d had sex four times, and every time, he knew, he had been the worst lover in the world”—only to realize with horror that he perhaps committed some light sexual assault during their dalliance by accidentally ejaculating a few seconds after being asked to stop. The incident leads him to call his mother, who convinces him he’s done nothing wrong (or at least nothing so wrong the university will step in), and to consult with Five-Hour, another Delta, who soberly informs him, “My brother, you raped her, a little bit.”

While Zach’s moral calculation here is uncommonly diligent—who calls their mother immediately after sex to walk her step-by-step through how they maybe, sort of, assaulted someone?—he is sincerely paralyzed by what he’s done. The university might not want to get involved, but he has to live with himself, and “he still didn’t know if he deserved to be punished, or if he did, how severe the punishment should be.” Despite Five-Hour’s warning that he shouldn’t create a paper trail by admitting wrongdoing, he can’t help himself from attempting to reach out to the woman, both to apologize and to hopefully recapture some of the initial spark that brought them together. The story cuts off before her response.

Rather than focus on the beastliness of frat bros, Nugent works hard to excavate the fragile humanity drawing each of his characters to this institution.

More sympathetic is Petey, the fleshy and somewhat mentally inert brother chosen as treasurer in—wait for it—“The Treasurer.” At the frat house bacchanal celebrating his election, Petey is forced to perform cunnilingus on a stripper named Jane. A video of the incident sparks a campus-wide debate over which party has been manipulated into assault, but the public sex act is more awkward than anything else, and Petey is touched when Jane eventually jams his head into her stomach so he doesn’t have to do much more than pantomime while she fakes an orgasm. “Was it not possible for two people to sort of rape each other at the same time, with success?” he wonders. Poor Petey, who is too undercooked to grapple seriously with such issues, depends on the capacity of others to help him sort right from wrong. In the end, he visits the strip club where Jane works with another brother, in order to signal to the world that he’s doing just fine.

Of all the stories in Fraternity, it is the one least concerned with generating empathy that rings the truest and funniest. The narrator of “Ollie the Owl” is a bro to the core, with an emotional well the depth of a muddy patch. (“Borat and Dracula are two physics majors from some country I keep forgetting,” he says of two non-frat residents of the house who rent rooms in the annex. “We call them that because they talk like that.”) To someone like Christina, a journalist from the school paper, he’s a garden variety pig who justifies the closure of the whole frat system. But when, in the collection’s only bit of magical realism, the house mascot springs to life and begins attacking students, it’s the narrator and his brother Swordfish who possess the presence of mind to do something about it. “We’re rugby players,” he says. “I mean, it hurts us to get hit, but when you look at our bodies you can tell we were meant to do this. This is like childbirth, our painful but natural role in the universe.”

Good man, more himbo than malicious jock. “Ollie” works because it’s here that the entire anthropological project collapses on itself, where Nugent accepts that some brothers may aspire toward nothing more than being like Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible films. In the right situation, that’s good enough. If it’s only in “Ollie” where he gets the balance perfectly right, Nugent combines cutting humor (“He was on the cusp of old, about thirty”) with subversively earnest sentiment throughout Fraternity, in the style of Sam Lipsyte, who provided a rapturous back cover blurb. It’s when Nugent describes sex, almost always without any literary pretense, that his insights into the fraternal mind are most convincing: “When we were about to start fucking,” “They stopped talking while he fingered her,” “his hesitation in pulling out of her and getting off her,” “We had sex, building to the vibrator,” “When he went down on her,” and so forth.

One rote goal of fiction is to explore the way one thing might signify something else—Oprah’s obsession with God’s poem, for example, telegraphs his own sublimated lust for Nutella. But for most of the brothers of Delta Zeta Chi, the act of sex itself can’t be dressed up in metaphor or meaning (even if their minds tend to wander while they’re pumping away). It only signifies that they are totally getting some.

Like Nugent, I performed my own amateur fieldwork on the debauched rituals of frat life during my junior year of college, when I sublet a room in an off-campus frat house run by the proud brothers of Pi Kappa Alpha, with whom I’d become friendly in the dorms. At the time, I had another offer from a nearby house occupied by film majors, and I still recall the logic behind my choice: I was fairly confident that for the rest of my life I’d always know people who enjoyed talking about movies, but this was my only chance to experience Greek life up close without having to join it.

Every frat house is different—you have the stoner frats, the party frats, the hipster frats, the Jewish frats, and so forth—but the broader Greek culture at every school is also highly variable. Pi Kappa Alpha is renowned for its hedonistic parties, but I went to a basically liberal private university where professionalism was cultivated from day one. The brothers wanted to rage, but they also understood the importance of appearances and mutual respect. So while the house at 1117 Foster was a permissive environment, the type of place where you might come home after classes to find a spontaneous flip cup tournament and your unlabeled bottle of vodka missing from the freezer, it also had a fastidious cleaning schedule, a requirement to provide twenty-four hours’ notice for any real party, and a strict understanding of when everyone could use the shower.

In other words, it wasn’t dissimilar from the dynamic found in thousands of undergraduate living spaces across the country, and after a short while, the imagined division I’d hoped to bypass when I signed my sublease agreement seemed relatively nonexistent. Sure, some of my roommates enjoyed DJ mash-ups more than I did, but nearly everyone I knew was drinking moderately-to-excessively and angling themselves toward employability post-graduation. The main difference was what everyone talked about when they were fucked up, or where they hoped to find work.

So while Fraternity is a charming collection and Nugent a sharp writer, the book is limited somewhat by its setting. The fraternal milieu would be much different had Nugent centered his research at a southern party nexus like the University of Georgia, or an upper crust terrarium like Harvard. By contrast, the Deltas seem to have joined because fraternity life at UMass Amherst informally drives the broader social life, like it does at many schools; the narrator of “Cassiopeia” is lightly recruited after stumbling into a party because he’s bored and looking for something to do. The brothers may grow up to be professional alcoholics or Fortune 500 executives (or both), but this particular frat isn’t where the seeds of their future selves will be planted. “Hell,” the one story in the collection that addresses hazing, is driven by the brothers’ belief that they can’t be as vicious to pledges as they might want because that type of treatment will go viral—nice of them, even as hazing deaths continue to happen every year. That’s perhaps a failure of imagination, though Nugent is free to write about what he wants. But it’s a convenient way of sidestepping the real darkness of Greek life, considering what a vicious ideological battlefield the contemporary fraternity is.

From the real world, he can convince himself, and maybe even us, that anything the Deltas did wasn’t so bad because they knew it was bad.

Nugent’s reportage approach also occasionally betrays its shortcomings. For a collection set in the early 2010s, nobody seems to listen to contemporary music, and one of Nugent’s more irritating tics is the way he atomizes descriptions of every song: “When the music went Biggie Biggie Biggie,” “The wounded singer denounced a lover who’d been untrue,” “The music was different now, a song about going out and having a good time,” etc. And while I’m aware of what quibbling with this says about me, an extended description of the PlayStation 4 game Bloodborne, which a character plays in the collection’s closing story, sorely requires a fact check.

Fraternity skips to the post-college world just once, when in “Fan Fiction” we find out what the beloved Nutella has gotten up to after graduation. He is not a mover or a shaker or even the president of a consulting firm but an aspiring actor in Los Angeles now coupled up with Carla, a buzzy female director who can’t help but pester him with questions about what Greek life was like. “You’re nice,” she says, “but frat boys are fucked-up. Every day there’s some story on the internet about something disgusting being done to some girl in a frat house, or some shitty thing they did to each other. Did you do stuff like that? Or are you the one nice one?”

Carla is meant to stand in for us, or maybe even Nugent: an outsider who can’t help but project their worst assumptions, even though their professional existence is predicated on their ability to meaningfully transcend such social barriers. Nutella knows his and Carla’s relationship works because they switch roles every now and then, allowing him to be the artist and her the audience, and he’s perhaps putting it on a bit when he tells her that “when the right guys are running a fraternity, it’s a place where people will tell you if you’re being an asshole. . . . But if the wrong guys are running a fraternity it’s more like a barbarian tribe, where all that matters is whether you’re in it or not.” From the real world, he can convince himself, and maybe even us, that anything the Deltas did wasn’t so bad because they knew it was bad.

Sharon, the woman who’s raped “a little bit” in “Basics,” might disagree, if we ever heard from her. But it’s the barbarians we’ve really got to watch out for, Nugent seems to suggest, the ones whose maintenance of inherently racist and sexist structures is finally coming up for debate and potential abolition. They’re nowhere to be found in Fraternity, but in the real world they’re everywhere, and you’d do well to take them seriously.