Anomal House

Fraternity: Stories BY Benjamin Nugent. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 160 pages. $23.
The cover of Fraternity: Stories

Greek life is enough of a pop-culture staple that it’s easy to forget how little attention fraternities and sororities have received from writers of literary fiction. The campus novel has been with us since the early 1950s, and while the genre has grown capacious enough to include such disparate works as Possession and Dear Committee Members, The Groves of Academe and Giles Goat-Boy, most tend to focus on faculty—specifically, a certain strain of libidinous professor who bemoans the benighted state of his department. Novels about college students—The Secret History, The Marriage Plot, The Idiot—have avoided frat row entirely, with the exception of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, about which the less said, the better.

Benjamin Nugent’s new collection doesn’t merely acknowledge Greek life but treats it as a focal point. The eight linked stories of Fraternity revolve around a fictional frat at a school that closely resembles UMass Amherst. As might be expected, the boys of Delta Zeta Chi hook up, throw keggers, and subject one another to baroquely degrading hazing rituals. But Nugent portrays his characters with uncommon sensitivity, even when they’re eating bananas out of the toilet or blowing bubbles in a sink full of piss.

Nugent treats his frat boys with such interest and insight that they become—against all stereotypes—complex, even sympathetic. These characters’ bravado belies a desperate need to belong. “God” is narrated by a Delta Chi, nicknamed Oprah (“because there were books in my room and I asked questions”), who becomes romantically infatuated with his frat brother Nutella. Oprah sleeps with the last girl Nutella hooked up with, as a way to be close to Nutella himself: “We had drawn him into the room like we were two lungs.” Oprah’s longing for Nutella is outmatched only by his longing for brotherhood. “No one would say anything to me,” he thinks, as he contemplates the consequences of his secret getting out. “No one would want to take anything from me. But brotherhood would be taken, in the end. The ease with which my brothers spoke to me, the readiness with which they spilled their guts in times of humiliation—this would be withdrawn.”

It’s this willingness to take seriously the comforts of community—however reprehensible that community might be—that gives Nugent’s stories their power. One story follows Pete as he performs oral sex on an exotic dancer in order to earn his position as fraternity treasurer. Pete feels plenty of shame and discomfort—“When he went down on her, she was still and unresponsive, which made him feel inept and ugly”—but as he dissociates, he embarks on a train of thought that leads him to a surprising epiphany about his relationship to submission: “It was always that sense of his body being part of a larger body,” he thinks, “of his being locked within a host and doing its bidding, that had been the warmest feeling of his life.”

Nugent’s prose is as sensitively crafted as his characters. He writes, of two students grinding, “Soon they were multitasking, their heads stabilized to enable conversation, their lower bodies humping on, like the abdomens of dying wasps.” A coked-up college grad blows her nose and checks the Kleenex, noticing “the usual red spiders bathed in clear froth.” Nugent’s gift is to notice—and in noticing, redeem—even the most cringe-inducing frat-house detritus.

At times, Nugent’s compassionate approach to fraternity life can rob the stories of the ability to surprise. “Basics” stages a murky sexual encounter between Zach and Sharon, which Nugent boldly describes in disturbing detail. Later, Zach calls his mom and tells her he’s worried he might have accidentally committed sexual assault. After hearing what happened, his mom laughs it off and tells him he’ll be fine, so long as he doesn’t apologize “in an emotional way,” which might cause Sharon to “decide that something really serious happened.” Zach “toppled backward onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. Everything looked beautiful and new now that she’d told him he was safe.” It’s an unsettling moment that raises questions about toxic masculinity and its enablers. But by the end of the story, Zach reaches out to apologize. He likes Sharon, and wants to see her again.

It’s a fine ending, taken on its own, but by the time the reader reaches “Ollie the Owl,” they won’t be surprised to discover that the obnoxious bro who mocks Take Back the Night marchers is secretly in love with a campus feminist. Every macho facade may hide an insecure man-child, but Nugent’s insistence on the goodness of his characters can make fraternities seem like places devoid of bad actors.

“Frat boys are fucked-up,” a woman tells her boyfriend in “Fan Fiction.” “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?” Though plenty of shitty and disgusting things take place in the Delta Zeta Chi house, Nugent’s protagonists tend to be the nice ones. A more compelling, and challenging, collection might have accounted for fewer “Oprahs” and more Brett Kavanaughs.

That said, it’s important to remember what Nugent is working against. The archetypal frat boy is so cemented in the popular imagination—thanks not only to Animal House and its many descendants (Old School, Van Wilder), but also to bro-blogs-cum-brands like—that to render Greek campus life as Nugent does, with empathy and heart, makes Fraternity a quietly significant achievement.

Andrew Ridker is the author of The Altruists (Penguin Books, 2019).