Our Summer issue features Benjamin Nugent’s story “The Treasurer,” which follows Pete, a junior at UMass Amherst, through the aftermath of the initiation ceremony for his being elected treasurer of Gamma House. Before a wide audience of partygoers, his brothers bring in a stripper and command him “to go forth and prove your faithfulness by giving your finest cunnilingus to this girl.” Video of the “ceremony” leaks throughout campus and sparks controversy on Gamma’s Facebook page: Should the ritual be considered rape? And if so, who was the victim?
Nugent’s story “God” was published in the Review’s Fall 2013 issue, and was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2014 and The Unprofessionals. Both stories feature in his forthcoming collection, Fraternity. On the patio of a bar in Brooklyn, beneath a pinewood trellis and twilight the color of bruises, I asked Nugent some questions as he chain-smoked American Spirit blues.
This is your second story about frat guys in the Review. Given that your collection is called Fraternity and is set in the house of the fictional Delta Zeta Chi, I have to wonder—were you ever a member?
No, but I grew up a ten-minute walk from UMass Amherst, where all the stories in Fraternity take place. “Frat Row” was kind of a fascinating place if you were in high school. I was in a band and had long hair, and had Doc Martens on which I’d painted green and yellow stripes, which is something it makes me ill to remember. One time, we were on our way to band practice, and we picked up this bass player named Vince, who was a total stoner skater dude. We were driving past Frat Row, and Vince stuck his entire torso outside the passenger-side window of the moving car and he shouted at the frat guys, JOCK GESTAPO! JOCK GESTAPO!, and they were actually offended. They were like, Fuck you, bro! And I was kind of fascinated. I’ve always had that impulse to get interested in people who my friends considered enemies. Why were they—these frat guys—the people who Vince would call Gestapo from a car?
I interviewed this one professor, this academic, who’d written a book about various forms of masculinity. He said the thing that fascinated him about frats, and I’m paraphrasing, is that they get drunk on the porch where everybody can see them. It’s theater. It’s not just drinking the keg. It’s also the performance of drinking the keg.
Was that something that drew you to the milieu?
Well, the first thing that drew me was the possibility of writing in a particular voice that I had never seen anybody write in before. It was a schooled but unschooled American argot, the kind of thing that if we lived in a rational universe every short-story writer would have leapt on decades ago. But because of certain literary fashions or blind spots, no one had thought to take “bro speak” seriously. “Bro speak” is perhaps too narrow a way of talking about it. Let’s call it Greek speak. I was just interested in how much I heard people talk like that and how little I saw it in literature. I admired so much of what George Saunders had done, which was to show in short stories a way in which many Americans spoke but in which no writer had ever written before. He had heard something in American contemporary English that other people had filtered out, and he redeemed it. And I feel like Greek speak deserves a similar redemption.
What do you mean by “redeem”?
Very different fiction writers, many of whom I admire—like David Foster Wallace and Amie Barrodale—are able to identify certain patterns of speech and behavior that no one else has identified and isolate them. To redeem a contemporary sound is to take a sound that was formerly part of the general wash of noise and isolate it, so that in its isolation it can be musical and suddenly scream at you. Maybe it’s like this—people are screaming in suffering all around you all the time, and you can’t hear it. I like writers who can make me hear some of the screams. I dislike writers who seem uninterested in the screams, or who want to try to get me off on the screams, or who want to play me a sentimental tune and pass it off as the screams. And I think you generally really can’t hear the frat boys screaming, even when they’re literally screaming unconvincing hedonistic slogans in the cold and it’s four in the morning.
In that way, it seems writing Fraternity has given you a platform to redeem even the word itself, fraternity.
I think there’s something to the surface-level camaraderie of fraternities. Some of these guys—at least the ones in Delta Zeta Chi—they haven’t been raised with a vision of masculinity that included a moral code. And I think they’re very much looking for that, whether they realize it or not. Not only in the sense of companionship, but they’re looking for a community—rather, a fraternity—in the sense of a moral institution that provides them a kind of moral training. One of the things that interests me about the word fraternity is that it has more of a French Revolution, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, idealistic resonance than the word community.
What’s the difference?
I think one of the horrifying things about the overuse of the word community is that it tends to imply a collection of people who get along. It implies social cohesion without any particular moral or spiritual ethics, right? Of course fraternity implies maleness, which is a problem, and community doesn’t have that problem. But community tends to suggest that what’s important is a kind of togetherness, rather than a dedication to certain common principles.
Most American fraternities were founded with very idealistic, nineteenth-century notions about what masculinity meant, and what the function of fraternity was supposed to be. But over the course of the twentieth century, some have been denuded of that optimistic moral philosophy. I’m interested in the fraternity as a microcosm of the United States in that regard. The ideas underpinning our democracy—the notions for which Lincoln sent men to die—have been forsaken in much the same ways that ideals of some old fraternities have.
Do you think the word American has experienced a similar slippage?
What’s so confused and dispiriting about some of the rhetoric regarding the “real America” is that it’s everything America is supposed to be the opposite of. We’re supposed to be the one country that isn’t about blood or soil or a national cuisine or aesthetic or lifestyle or other inherited cultural and/or religious practices. Americanness is supposed to consist of text rather than images, foods, dances, landscapes, et cetera. That’s what makes us unusual among nations. The entire idea of America is supposed to be that citizenship means adherence to principles and laws, rather than any of the other stuff. What’s so fascinating about Trumpism is how perfectly opposite to our actual founding principles it is.
It’s the same thing with some fraternities. The charter of Delta Zeta Chi, the fictional fraternity in my book, is all about selflessness and service and these particular democratic principles. But what it’s become is what do you look like, are you hot, are girls going to come to our parties, do we stick together, do we have community as opposed to a moral fraternity. I’m interested in that because I think it mirrors a process underway in our country as a whole.
Daniel Johnson works at The Paris Review.
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