Don’t go milking Brad Land’s grueling Goat for any epiphanies.
Giving readers “a grand observation” is the aim of most tell-all books, acknowledges the 27-year-old, South Carolina-based author. “That’s something I’ve seen a lot in memoir,” he says.
But he deems the approach “kind of bulls••t.”
Goat (Random House, 2004), his debut, has met with unprecedented critical praise. Land, however, says he “tried not to come to any great realization” when writing his memoir.
“I think that’s kind of cheapening the experience when you make it too tidy for the reader,” he explains.
Never fear, though — there’s nothing neat and clean about Goat.
To start with, the book’s rough, conversational stream-of-consciousness-ness is one of its most intriguing aspects. Think On the Road — but where Kerouac always at least sounded like he knew what he was talking about, imparting his cache of wisdom to the impressionable reader, Land’s voice is never all-knowing, never pompous.
Often he barely even sounds self-aware.
Describing one of many humiliating hazing rituals he endured as a new pledge (a “goat”) at Clemson University’s Kappa Sigma fraternity, Land writes: “We move our arms and legs in slow jumping jacks and bounce back and forth from wall to wall. It’s supposed to look like ‘Space Invaders.’ … We bah like goats as we move and I don’t know if the brothers are actually going to throw a football at us or if this is just meant to be scary. But what I do know is that Dixon says we better not f••king duck when he throws at us and that I feel stupid for moving like this waiting for a football to find me.”
The author, inevitably, will also be linked to Salinger: There’s the classic Holden Caulfield outsider complex — Land knows that nothing he ever does will endear him to his peers. Except even Caulfield, the very icon of angst, brandishes his rebellion with a cause: More often than not, a silver lining looms just out of sight.
For Land, there is no distant light, no dawn to follow the darkest hour. He offers the reader no moment of realization, of redemption — a daring choice for a book so widely marketed.
Though Goat has been adorned with a wealth of acclaim, including a serial in GQ, it’s not pretty — hardly a walk through a pastoral setting. In fact, as the demonic, block-cut image on the novel’s bright-red cover alludes, this is a book of darkness — an all-consuming darkness that makes the works of Anne Rice and Stephen King look like a collection of nursery rhymes.
As the promotional posters boast, Goat is “a memoir of brotherhood and violence,” which makes it that much more disturbing. Because it’s real.
Land tells of a terrible year in which he was abducted and savagely beaten in his hometown while giving two strangers a ride home from a party. He barely survives, depressed and confused, only to eventually enter Clemson University to pledge the fraternity of which his younger brother, Brett, is already a member. It’s a bleak stab at a new start that puts Brad at the mercy of sadistic frat “brothers” even as it estranges him from his real, beloved sibling.
Publisher’s Weekly praises Land for showing us “what it’s like to pledge a fraternity in order to gain … respect and admiration” from one’s peers.
But sensitive readers will smell doom from the get-go. Which is exactly what makes Goat so fascinating. It’s apparent that Brad knows better. But still he goes, a lamb to slaughter — and, in the end, emerges the lucky one: One of his fellow pledges fails to survive the hazing torture at all.
Surprisingly, the author sounds anything but gloomy these days. The dark cloud that understandably haunted him then is palpably absent now.
The events in his memoir, Land points out, happened eight years ago. “You have to have a lot of distance [to write about something like that],” he explains. “I haven’t been in that world in a long time.”
He goes on to discuss his process — how he managed to capture Goat‘s atrocities on paper: “I try to think of myself as a reporter, really, to look at the scenes in my head, and to look at them objectively.”
There is a happy ending, but you won’t get it from the book. After leaving Clemson, Land went on to the graduate writing program at UNC-Wilmington and there began his manuscript. With the help of his professor, Sarah Messer, Land began experimenting with form, creating the groundwork for his memoir — though it took him a year before he was confident his idea could actually become a book.
Much of the story deals with Land’s relationship with his younger brother, and how the fraternity experience jeopardized their bond.
“Brett falls asleep and when I get up to go to bed, trying to be quiet, he looks at me bleary and says night,” Brad writes in one of the book’s tender moments. “It’s always like that. I always try to get back to my room without waking him just to see if I can but he always wakes up. No matter how quiet I am. It’s like he’s asleep but part of him is always listening to see if I’m still there.”
“I think at some point [the book was] kind of weird for [my family],” Land admits. “But they’ve always supported everything I do.”
His father was a minister for 25 years, writing sermons every week, very much a storyteller. “He was the first writer I knew,” the author says. “He gave me Kurt Vonnegut before I knew who Kurt Vonnegut was.”
As for his mother, Land says she won’t even watch violent movies because the imagery affects her so deeply. Still, he shared his work with her. “I felt like the book was rough — not for some cheap reason, but because that was what the story called for,” he says. “But my mom read it and liked it.
“It’s been weird,” he confesses, “but good.”
With Goat under his belt, Land is ready to move on. He recently spent two months at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire working on a draft of a novel. That’s right: It’s fiction this time.