[ GOAT f e a t u r e s ]
february 13, 2004
"I've had my ass beat quite a few times," says Willy, standing outside the condemned fraternity house in Florence, S.C., where he was kidnapped nine years ago, an experience the 27-year-old recounts in his intense debut memoir, Goat (Random House, $ 22.95). "I've had my ass beat here," he adds--meaning, more precisely, a 20-minute drive away from here, after two kids he didn't know asked him, on this very spot, for a ride home following a 1995 frat party. He said yes, and they led him to the outskirts of town, savagely assaulted him, dumped him on the road, and stole his Oldsmobile.
It's the stomach-churning intro ("there's so much blood I'm drinking it") of a present-tense personal history that only gets worse. Psychologically shattered (and rendered nearly deaf in one ear), Willy sought a change of scenery by joining his younger brother Brett on the other side of the state at Clemson University, and, feeling "the frantic need to belong," opted to pledge Brett's frat. Bad call. The hazing he endured from his Kappa Sig brothers reignited sick, awful memories of his beating and spawned--seven
years later--this slim, grim, and buzzed-about true story recently excerpted as a "frat boy abuse" tell-all in GQ.
Willy says he's "intrigued and appalled by" young men's Fight Club-esque capacity for violence and "drawn to write about it," but emphasizes that he didn't set out to pen a fraternity expose. "That idea makes me cringe," he says, looking--in his ratty clothes, skinny frame, and long hair--more like a Stroke than a Phi Delt. "To me the book is about awkwardness and not feeling like you belong." Nevertheless, the hazing scenes are nerve-racking, especially following Willy's opening assault. "We got taken out to this cinder-block building," says Willy, going on to recount a hazing episode in the book too R-rated to repeat here. "I was like, 'What the f--- are they thinking?" He laughs brusquely. "At least with someone who was robbing me, they were robbing me. I could see the utilitarian purpose of that. They want my car. That's why they're yelling at me, that's why they're beating me up. But when it's just frat-boy ARR ARR ARR"--he hollers like an animal--"it's like 'What the f---?'"
After a few more hazings, Willy quit Kappa Sig, and at the end of the
semester--for reasons best not to divulge--he and Brett left Clemson for good. Three years later, having graduated from his hometown college in Florence, Willy started Goat in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at UNC Wilmington. First, he tried to fictionalize his 1995 assault. Then he tried writing about the hazing. Months later, he finally put the two together ("I know it seems totally obvious, but it took me a while to get there"). Two
more years of writing and rewriting produced a manuscript that attracted an agent, and then Random House. "It really is uncommon that you see something this good that grabs you this fast, right away," says acquiring editor Lee Boudreaux. "This is the first book in what's gonna be a very interesting career." Willy only has "21 pages to go" before finishing the first draft of a novel, a punk-rock love story partly inspired by one of his favorite films, You Can Count on Me. With Goat under his belt, plus a little help from his shrink and a Zoloft prescription, he insists that he's put his once-cracked psyche back together again. "I'm fine, man, I'm fine," he says in his Southern drawl. "Now especially, I'm at a better place than I've ever been."
But shaking him up is still pretty easy. A couple of hours later, a happy, talkative stranger with a hat and a scraggly beard picks up Willy's trail on a nighttime city street, looking for 80 cents and a little conversation. Willy stiffens, but hands over a dollar and hurries away. "Homeless people make me skittish," he confesses, out of the man's earshot. "My experiences with random street people have not been the best." He thinks a minute. "I don't like people coming up to me out of the dark--just because, you know?"
Plain Dealer Publishing Co.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio)
February 29, 2004 Sunday
There's not a single pleasant moment in Willy's memoir, "Goat." The writing is spare and brutal, and his story teems with violence and humiliation as he recounts assaults experienced over two years of his life. What results is a startling picture of accepted cruelty and a haunting look inside the mind of a victim.
Willy opens with the first attack, which takes place late one night after leaving a fraternity party. When asked for a ride by two people characterized only as "the smile" and "the breath," he is too timid to refuse and ends up driving to an isolated road in the woods. What follows is a disturbing account of a beating, which ends with Willy forced to lie in front of his car with his face pushed so hard into the gravel road that rocks cut into his cheek and forehead. He expects to die, telling us that he only waits for "the tires to break my skull, to crush my ribs," but his attackers drive away.
Willy runs through the woods in search of help, and though he's jarred enough to hallucinate a conversation with a fox, he knocks on the door of a house and persuades the answering couple to call the police.
Even after the bruises heal and one of his assailants is sentenced to prison, Willy's experience, which his family euphemizes as "the incident," leaves him with a ruptured eardrum and permanent emotional scars. For a while, he takes a hiatus from life until he decides to join his younger brother, Brett, at Clemson University.
At Clemson, Willy can't escape the nervous, social awkwardness and loneliness that plagued him even before the assault, so he seeks to resolve these problems by joining his brother's fraternity, Kappa Sigma.
The rest of "Goat" follows Willy as he documents the procedure of pledging for the fraternity and unmasks the systematic degradation the experience entails.
The hazing the new pledges endure is at times physically brutal, but what resonates beyond the beatings and forced alcohol poisoning is the vile undercurrent of severe emotional battery that seemingly has no end. At one point, when a fraternity brother tells the pledges that they had better prepare to copulate with a goat, " 'Cause right here in a minute, that's what you're going to be doing," there's no reason to believe he's lying. For Willy, the hazing dredges up and mirrors memories of "the incident," turning him into even more of a recluse. For the others, the consequences are even more severe.
In the end, Willy's purpose here isn't to win pity from his readers, and he isn't even in the business of making himself particularly likable. But clearly, he is a victim. If it weren't being sold as truth, pieces of "Goat" easily could be viewed as a parody of college frat boys who govern their lives by beer, sex and power and have a handling of expletives that puts "The Sopranos" to shame.
With that "memoir" label, however, Willy's story proves to be a scathing account that highlights the hypocrisy of groups claiming to promote brotherhood while practicing subjugation.
Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
February 29, 2004 Sunday
PHYSICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE MAKES A STUNNING STORY
Only 20 pages into Goat , the narrator is beaten mercilessly and his car stolen by two strangers to whom he offered a ride home from a party.
"The forearm around my neck tightening. I'm yanking down, digging nails into the skin. It doesn't move. And the fists come again into my face," Willy writes in his book. "My mouth full of blood. Swallow it. I can feel my heart in my temples."
He is left for dead on the side of a lonely road in rural South Carolina, near his home in Florence. And his nightmare doesn't end.
The terrifying experience sets the stage for the stunning memoir Goat .The story, first serialized in GQ , recounts his assault and, later, the brutal hazing and psychological torture he suffered as a 20-year-old fraternity pledge at Clemson University.
Months after his near-death experience, although Willy has recovered from his physical wounds, he remains an emotional wreck.
His attackers, whom he dubs "the smile" and "the breath," continue to dog him even after they are arrested.
"They're gone but they aren't gone. I can see them everywhere. The smile and the breath are out walking. Always just at my back."
In a desperate attempt to get his life in order, Willy leaves Florence to follow his younger brother, Brett, across the state to Clemson.
And, like Brett and their father and grandfather, he pledges the Kappa Sigma fraternity -- making a choice that carries disastrous consequences.
At the start of pledge week, he begins to question his decision.
Despite encouragement from his fellow pledges, Willy writes, "I am happy but at the same time everything seems off, somehow, like I don't belong here. Anywhere."
The pledges, derisively called "goats" by their big brothers, are put through humiliating rituals.
Willy, 27, takes readers on a harrowing journey, recalling with laser-sharp clarity the brutal rites of passage as well as the fear and loathing he felt during them.
Given his past, his panic and paranoia are understandable.
"It's my second week and the fraternity owns me. The brothers are everywhere, waiting for me to slip. I walk to class and look for brothers. I eat and look for brothers. I'm in my room waiting for the phone to ring or a fist to pound on my door. I sleep and now the smile and the breath are always in my dreams, dark and faceless, screaming, leering down at me and I am a quivering breathless child."
But he remains unvanquished. His short-lived stint as a Kappa Sig pledge and the strain it places on his relationship with his brother are central to Goat.
In the end, the death of another pledge prompts both brothers to leave Clemson and strengthens their bond. The book is dedicated to Brett.
Willy is not simply an outcast with an ax to grind, and Goat is not intended as a tell-all about the dark side of Greek life on American campuses.
Rather, it is a brutal yet beautiful narrative about young men driven by fear and a desperate desire to fit in, and the bonds between brothers -- fraternal and biological.
Like the attackers who almost took his life and the fraternity brothers who threatened to rob him of his dignity, Willy uses his own brand of brutality -- a candor that may leave readers stunned and breathless.
Asheville Mountain Express
Feb 25, 2004 / vol 10 iss 29
O brother(hood), where art thou?
Memoir dips deep into hazing hell
by Alli Marshall
Don't go milking Willy'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. Willy, 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, Willy'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, Willy 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 – Willy 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 Willy, 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.
Willy 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 Willy at the mercy of sadistic frat "brothers" even as it estranges him from his real, beloved sibling.
Publisher's Weekly praises Willy 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 Willy 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, Willy 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, Willy went on to the graduate writing program at UNC-Wilmington and there began his manuscript. With the help of his professor, Sarah Messer, Willy 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 Willy'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," Wiily 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]," Willy 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, Willy 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, Willy 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.
"It hasn't been extraordinarily different," Willy says about his genre switch. "I like to write. That's what I love to do, and I do it every day."
Characteristically self-effacing, he adds: "Most of the time I think [my writing] sucks, but I wouldn't trust myself if I loved it."
The Patriot Ledger
The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA)
February 21, 2004 Saturday
'Goat' a compelling read - especially for college guys
By Chad Berndtson
The opening chapter of Willy's riveting "Goat: A Memoir" is a kick in the head: the 19-year-old narrator is brutally assaulted after leaving a South Carolina party and left bleeding, broken and tormented. As the local police are little help, and his friends and family tiptoe around him on excruciating pins and needles, Goat's fast-paced narrative unfolds with disarming, unexpected grace.
Recovering from what everyone calls "your thing" or "the incident," Willy decides to transfer to Clemson University and pledge the same fraternity as his brother Brett, seeing his brother's success in Kappa Sigma as an opportunity to constructively start over.
"It isn't just the looks. It's everything. Brett is athletic. He makes all-state in soccer junior and senior years. I quit soccer when I am twelve. I quit tennis when I am fourteen. I am good at neither. But mostly it's just the air about him. Like he can have anything he wants. He just needs to point."
The quirky, tragicomic memoir has mushroomed into a sizeable sub-genre ever since the release of Dave Eggers' seminal "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," (2000). Willy's work is similar in structure, but is refreshingly gritty in its narrative style, it leaves out the quirk and the often inane comic relief, but is also dramatically tempered so that it doesn't devolve into an angry rant.
Willy narrates largely in the present and expresses other characters' dialogue without quotations, instead filtered through his own perspective. He writes quite often in short fragments, but the prose feels fluid and not irritating, and we feel connected to Willy's uncertainty, turmoil and uneasiness.
Willy's approach is measured: he wants things to come to the reader as they did to him originally, and then sort it all out later. The reader becomes absorbed, thus, moving through the present with Willy as the disheartening events unfold and he learns some hard lessons.
The events of the final chapters unfold far too quickly, but if we are shortchanged in the way of a proper ending, we are also happy to do without a languishing epilogue.
It's a compelling and plangent look at a type of masculine difficulty that's all too common, and the horrors of something as seemingly innocent as "a little hazing." Anyone - especially men - who knows what collegiate relationships are like will probably see a bit of himself in "Goat's" weary protagonist.
The Hartford Courant Company
Hartford Courant (Connecticut)
February 29, 2004 Sunday
DISCOMFORT OF MALE VULNERABILITY
By Jack Dolan
Willy's violent memoir "Goat" opens with a savage beating he took at age 18 from two strangers who stole his car and left him for dead. The chapters that follow in this coming-of-age tale, hailed as a heartbreakingly sincere exploration of male vulnerability, made me want to kick the guy a few times myself.
That sounds harsh but probably wouldn't come as a complete surprise to Willy.
On the surface, his book is a diatribe against the violence young men inflict on each other, especially during fraternity hazing, which Willy endured after the car-jacking during his freshman year at Clemson University.
But at its heart, Willy's story shows how a traumatized teenager struggled to shed the debilitating uncertainty he suffered after his assault -- a fragility that seemed to attract human predators and push away the people he needed to keep close.
Willy executes this complicated literary task with marvelously clean, fluid prose. After I put down the book the first time, I couldn't wait to pick it up again. That speaks volumes for the storytelling, because it was torture being alone with that narrator and his unsettling confessions about weakness and shame.
Willy paints himself as a lanky, unassertive kid. On the fateful night of the attack, he walked out of a party instead of taking his chances with a girl his much more confident younger brother hooked him up with. He knew immediately there was something wrong about the strangers who asked him for a ride while he was getting in his car, but he was too passive to refuse.
Then he didn't stop the car and tell them to get out when he realized they were directing him down empty roads beyond the city limits, with no clear destination. And he didn't fight back when one landed the first blow.
Through the ordeal, his only thought of resistance came when he found a screwdriver in the trunk, where his attackers stuffed him while they drove around deciding his fate. Alone in the dark, he indulged in fantasies of using the tool for revenge. But he did nothing when the two nameless tormentors dragged him out for a second, even more vicious beating, leaving him face down in sharp gravel on a deserted country road.
After the assault, Willy retreated into an almost mystical silence, mumbling little more than "you wouldn't understand" when anyone, including the police, tried to draw out details from him.
His father, a minister in the small South Carolina town where Willy grew up, stopped asking him to talk about the attack. His mother, a nurse, simply pasted inspirational Bible verses on his mirror and tended to the long list of physical humiliations resulting from the attack, including a mouthful of bleeding ulcers caused, his doctor said, by the trauma and stress.
He formed a brief attachment to a pretty girl who chased away a group of bullies at a party who taunted him for not fighting back. She showed incredible compassion and even made out with him, despite the ulcers. But when she hesitated to return his ill-considered "I love you," he dissolved in a fit of need and self-pity that drove her into the arms of his little brother.
Ultimately, it was Willy's desire to regain his brother's respect that saved him. After taking a year off from school to recuperate, Willy decided to offer himself up for the violent hazing at his brother's fraternity.
The inevitable beating looms large through the second half of the book, and the strain on both brothers is immense. One has to steel himself for the violence to come; the other has to ask himself why he belongs to such a mindless organization.
The hazing and its consequences were awful. But Willy discovered a dignified way to resist. It probably saved his life. It certainly saves the book.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
February 15, 2004 Sunday
Bloodied, but not bowed: A goatboy's passage to manhood
By Arthur Salm, editor of Books
Ever get the crap beat out of you?
I never have, but I came close. One night when I was a freshman in college, a dorm-wide water-balloon war broke out. Feeling above it all, I locked my door and jammed a towel under it. When the the hostilities ceased, I ventured out, only to be intercepted by a balloon-wielding guy named Denny. I ran: down the hall, down the stairs, boom! through the heavy doors and outside. Zigzagged through a parking lot, opened it up full throttle across a wide, wide lawn to another parking lot, glanced over my shoulder -- and damned if Denny wasn't there, maybe 50 yards back, still cradling that water balloon.
I cruised to a stop, figuring, If he wants to get me that badly, well, OK, he's got me.
Denny jogged up and stood in front of me, panting. He threw the water balloon onto the ground. It exploded at my feet. What? I looked up in time to take in the last couple of frames of a streaking right fist before it nailed me square in the mouth, jerked my head back and sat me down on the asphalt.
Denny stood over me like Clay over Liston. "Get up and fight," he said.
Not likely. I was already hurt -- head reeling, blood trickling down my chin and dripping onto my shirt. Also, I hadn't been in a fight since about age 9, and Denny was built like a pocket battleship. And not long ago I had sat in a dorm room and listened to him tell a bunch of us about the gang fights he'd been in in San Pedro.
So I decided on a course of non-action. "I'm not going to fight you," I said.
"Get up and fight," Denny said again.
"I'm not going to fight you."
"Get up and fight."
"I'm not going to fight you."
"Get up and fight."
So far, so good; I could do this all night. After a few more exchanges, Denny dropped his hands, hissed a rude, one-word insult referencing female anatomy, and stalked away into the night.
A couple of days later, he apologized -- he'd thought I'd been the one to lean a garbage can full of water against his door. I told him to forget it. He probably did. But I didn't.
Even had I not been punched out, then agonized endlessly over "what I should have done," it's likely that I'd still have found Willy's "Goat: A Memoir" a nerve-shredding experience. But everyone reads a different version of the same book, and Denny haunted mine.
Willy did, in fact, get the crap beat out of him. One night in 1995, the 19-year-old Willy, leaving a party, foolishly, recklessly gave a ride to two strangers. Willy's hushed, agonized prose propels the story relentlessly, conveying a certain hopeless inevitability to the attack. His riders come across as almost-seen wraiths from the semi-dreams that flit through our minds just before awakening: the smile, he calls the man in the seat next to him; the breath, he calls the one in the back seat. The breath leaned forward, pulled a forearm into Willy's throat, choked him to unconsciousness. Revived, then savagely beaten, Willy was flung into the trunk, driven far into the woods, beaten again and left to welter in blood and dust.
Willy had already been adrift. Now, shattered, he follows his younger brother, Brett -- bigger, better-looking, always-popular Brett -- to Clemson University. There, desperate for some measure of acceptance, to find purchase on some piece of solid ground, he pledges Brett's fraternity and wills himself to withstand savage and humiliating hazing at the hands -- at the fists -- of his brothers-to-be. His relationship with Brett is strained, snaps ... and snaps back.
"Goat" -- that's what the brothers call a pledge -- is a prolonged, slow-motion recapitulation of the attack; the smile and the breath shimmer, superimposed, over the dull, cruel faces of Willy's tormenters. One night, after performing some especially disgusting tasks for the fraternity (including washing out plastic beer cups filled with tobacco spit), Willy returns to his room:
"That night I dream of shadows. Nothing coherent, just this darkness at the doors and windows. I wake up sweating, still dirty ... heart pounding. Go over to the window and check to see if it's shut. Check the door lock. The television flashing. I sit on my bed and stare at the colors and I know then that it was the smile and the breath I was dreaming about. Or brothers. Whichever. But it doesn't really matter. They're the same thing.
"I wait until sunlight before I sleep."
This memoir isn't merely an indictment of fraternity hazing, although it is certainly that, or an affecting coming-of-age story, though it is that as well. Our wounded tour guide takes us through the blasted landscape of the cult of American masculinity, terrain he so recently traversed and only just survived. The journey is harrowing, but the book is infused with a delicious between-the-lines contradiction: All the self-confessed weakness Willy lays so bare is at odds with the power of the prose that conveys it. The tale throws sparks of delicious dissonance, hums with righteous frisson. Good writers always Willy the last punch.
Denver Publishing Company
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
February 14, 2004 Saturday Final Edition
REAL FRAT LIFE UNLEASHES SCARIEST ANIMALS
By Patti Thorn, Rocky Mountain News
The movie Animal House highlighted the harmless side of frats. The Deltas may have been a group of degenerates, but you gotta admit that a bunch of goofballs wrapped in bedsheets, shouting "toga!" isn't anyone's idea of real trouble.
But what about the Deltas' less-lovable counterparts, the Omegas?
Suppose instead of focusing on John Belushi smashing beer cans into his head, the camera had rested unblinkingly on those square-jawed, humorless frat boys, with their sadistic snarls and sneering intent?
You'd have a story much like the one Willy recounts in his new memoir, Goat.
It's a road trip, all right - to a special corner of hell.
Goat describes Willy's rush days at Clemson University in South Carolina. Consider it the anti-Animal House, the tale of what happens when frat hijinks go beyond bong hits and food fights. It's the kind of book you can't stop reading, despite - and, yes, because of - its horrors.
The book begins with a shocking incident that will echo throughout the story, like haunting background music.
It's a year before Willy joins the frat. A college sophomore who has returned to his hometown college after spending freshman year away, he is slight and awkward and unsure of himself. Although 13 months older than his handsome, cocksure brother Brett, Willy is the weaker of the two - in short, an easy mark when a stranger asks him for a ride as he leaves a party one night.
His description of the stranger foreshadows what's to come. "I turn my head and he's there, this face I don't know, all teeth and glowing eyes, one hand laid against the chain-link fence running along my right shoulder," writes Willy.
". . . So, he says, so man give me a ride right? and I look at him and my head drops, yes, sure, yeah, where you going, up the street, he says, just up the street. . . . And inside I'm shaking my head, telling him no, no ride, sorry gotta be somewhere, but I can't stop myself from saying yes . . . and I can't say no because I'm afraid to tell people no."
The cadence of Willy's prose draws you hypnotically to the inevitable. The stranger grabs a friend; they urge Willy to drive to a desolate spot, where they beat him savagely, eventually dumping him in a field before stealing his car. They might have spared his life by inches, but not his already precarious self-esteem.
No wonder, when Willy eventually follows Brett to Clemson, he is looking for a place that can make him feel whole and safe again.
Instead, he finds macho posturing in the most innocuous of scenes.
There's Death Valley football stadium, with it's rock monument built by legendary coach Frank Howard, who once told his players they could touch the rock for good luck only if "they came to send people home limping."
And there are the students who swing from a rope and drop 40 feet into the lake below, even though a tree stump occupies the spot where they will Willy - and they often come up bloody.
It's male swagger at its finest, magnified by Willy's new sensitivity to violence. And it only gets worse when Willy pledges Kappa Sigma, the fraternity his brother had joined a year earlier.
At first, Willy notices the expected: the frat brothers' callous treatment of women (who are routinely referred to as body parts, rather than names) and the drink-till-you-puke mentality (one night, Willy downs 16 beers before losing count).
In some ways, it seems like just another toga party with the Deltas - until the hazing of his pledge class begins in earnest, and Willy's frat brothers cross some invisible line from boys-will-be-boys antics to outright abuse.
In one hazing incident, Willy and his pledge brothers are pushed into a hall lined with frat members. Shoved from member to member, they are slammed into another room and forced to their knees.
"Bah like a goat, mother------," someone says.
"Louder, he says."
The sleeve of one pledge's Oxford shirt is torn off. They are slapped, covered with Vaseline and toothpaste and spit on until they feel the saliva running down their backs - all before being thrown into cars and taken to a cabin where they are slapped around again and forced to drink until they retch.
In another incident, the pledges play a game called "Goat Invaders." Told to stand single file in the hall, they bounce back and forth doing jumping jacks - while frat brothers fire a football at their heads at close range. One pledge stumbles, then goes limp. Another is knocked unconscious.
Pledges are forced to drink from a cooler filled with water, phlegm, pubic hair and urine. They're told to feign sex with each other.
If it sounds like the kind of hijinks old men chuckle about over highballs, chalking it up to the folly of youth, Willy's skill is such that he never lets you forget this is savagery, plain and simple.
And he's clear on just what's at stake: nothing less than a pledge's self-worth. Quitting means losing entree to girls, who are drawn to frat boys like groupies to rock stars. It means losing social status, visibility, self-respect.
"If you quit what's left?" asks a pledge brother of Willy. "Studying? All you are is the guy who couldn't do it and everywhere you go that's what people are gonna think."
In truth, though, staying in the frat wreaks even worse damage. Willy grows increasingly alienated: from Brett, who seems to condone the violence by urging Willy to endure it; and from his own true nature. It's not long before the fears he has suppressed from his earlier kidnapping begin to resurface like ghouls rising out of a swamp.
Here's something your parents never tell you: Sometimes, giving up takes more courage than seeing things through.
And that's the lesson Willy learns as he retreats from a world he can't condone or outlast.
Goat is the kind of book that takes your breath away like a fist to the stomach. You'll be torn by opposing urges: one, to race through it to learn what happens, and another, to slow down and savor the artfulness of its craft. Willy's prose is taut and haunting, the sense of danger and disassociation loaded in the space between each sentence.
Sure, you'll occasionally wish that John Belushi and his Delta buddies would show up for some comic relief.
But this is real life.
And in real life, let's face it: When a bunch of out-of-control frat boys decide to go on a road trip, it might be memorable for the slapstick moments and hilarious near-misses you'll see in Animal House.
More likely, though, you'll remember it instead for what gets flattened along the way.
San Jose Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News (California)
February 15, 2004 Sunday
Unsparing memoir recalls brutal acts
Boys will be boys, and sometimes that's a dangerous thing to be. That's one of the lessons of Willy's unsettling memoir, ''Goat'' (Random House, 207 pp., $22.95).
Willy grew up in small-town South Carolina, doing what adolescent males do in small towns: drinking beer, trying to have sex and looking for a way out. One evening, just before he was about to start his second year in college -- having flunked out of one college, he was about to enroll in a small liberal arts school in his hometown -- he left a beer-sodden party and was accosted by a couple of strangers who asked him for a ride. They beat him mercilessly and stole his car.
He suffered not only from his injuries, which included a ruptured eardrum, but also from the taunts of guys who were sure they wouldn't have let themselves get beat up. While Willy was recuperating, his younger brother enrolled in Clemson University, where he pledged Kappa Sigma fraternity. So Willy decided to go to Clemson and join the same fraternity. But he entered a hell of stupid, drunken, sadistic hazing that brought back echoes of the earlier beating.
Willy quit the fraternity and -- after the death of a fellow member of his pledge class -- Clemson as well. Later, he somehow made his way to the University of North Carolina and Western Michigan University, where he studied creative writing, apparently to good effect. ''Goat'' is a bleak and often horrifying little book, written with a novelist's finesse.
Memoirs are almost always full of tiny details and precise dialogue that even the most retentive of memories would never dredge up, and ''Goat'' is no exception in its evident fictionalizing. But if it's not truthful, it's true: an unsparing book about the awful things people do to fill the sad emptiness of their lives.
Daily News (New York)
February 15, 2004 Sunday
SPORTS FINAL EDITION
PUNCH DRUNK Cautionary account of frat-house hazing
By SHERRYL CONNELLY
Ritual hazing can, at times, border on criminal assault. Here, Willy provides a unique perspective, recounting a vicious beating inflicted on him by two psychopaths and the violence he endured from fraternity brothers as a pledge.
Not surprisingly, the two incidents became one in his mind.
In 1995, Willy was living at home in Florence, S.C., when he gave a couple of strangers a ride after a party. Before stealing his car, they beat him to the point where it seemed he was drinking his own blood. Partly to put that hellish night behind him, Willy moved across state to Clemson University determined to join his brother's fraternity, Kappa Sigma.
A mistake, that.
The torture inflicted on him at Clemson stopped short of the acts that resulted in the recent felony convictions of three Long Island high-school students for the sexual hazing of freshman football players.
But it was more than sufficiently brutal and obscene to fit the description of "frat-boy abuse."
"Everything hurts," Willy writes. "The air hurts, it hurts to breathe because I don't want to do this pledge thing anymore because I'm scared of everything ... but I'm also terrified of what I will be without the fraternity, that I will be nothing."
Willy did quit Kappa Sigma and, eventually, Clemson. Readers, though, then learn about another tragedy that underscores the cost of hazing. And not just to the soul.
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