Normally I finish a book before I even attempt to write a review, but in this rare case, I felt that even a few pages warranted a stern warning on my part. Again, I did not, nor would I ever, finish this book. Had it not been a library copy, I might have tossed it into the street, although not before I covered it thoroughly with my assorted bodily fluids. While the topic sounded quite spectacular — a memoir of a fraternity pledge and all the humiliation, depredation, and fascistic bullying that such a thing entails — it was written as if the author were attempting to channel the very worst components of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. Not that they have much by way of good components, but you catch my meaning. Or perhaps you don’t. For those unfamiliar with McCarthy (I trust you’ve heard of Papa), he is an author who writes as if he’s firing a gun at the page; tough, pithy sentences to be sure, although so devoid of flourish as to be deadly in their lack of rhythm. Sentences are short and dry, pushing along as if they are afraid to resemble human speech. It’s as if an illiterate coot from the West Virginia hills felt a calling to write his life story, only he lacks the talent and ability to fully articulate the wild thoughts rolling around his head. Author Brad Land — the assassin of language who wrote Goat: A Memoir — apparently suckled at the teat of Cormac et al, and the reading public is the poorer for it.
Again, I was feverish with anticipation when I read assorted reviews (all glowing) of Goat, most of which hailed a new voice in American letters. The book promised a stirring, sad tale of longing and loss; an inside look at the barbaric campus rituals that often act as a form of civilian boot camp. And any book that hashes the assorted assholes and muscle heads I so often dreamed of murdering in my youth was something I had to spend a few nights reading. But I simply could not continue. After nearly twenty pages, my mouth went dry, my brain partially shut down, and I slammed the book down in frustration. You want a sample of what I was dealing with? First, I hate authors who misuse punctuation (or don’t use it at all) and attempt to emulate James Joyce with a lack of quotation marks. One unreadable Irishman is enough, I promise you (although I doubt Land is Irish). Here are a few painful selections:
“Then the smile’s feet in my mouth. The breath beside me, his feet in my stomach. Picking me up beneath the arms again and I’m limp, my eyes clouded and the blood foaming on my lips, running down my chin. It’s falling down my chest and there’s so much blood I’m drinking it, the smile in front of me now, his warm breath on my cheek, he’s looking me square in the face.”
“The smile tunes the radio. I speed up and hope I’ll get pulled. When I take another cigarette the smile is looking at me and I see him but I don’t turn, he’s there smiling, the electronic dial on the radio bleeding blue onto his legs and stomach. Smoke? he says and I say yeah smoke, I smoke, hold the cigarette toward him, shake it a bit, want one? I say and he laughs, says nah I mean smoke, you know like real smoke? and it takes me a minute to get it and then I’m going nah I mean I do (want to sound cool) but I can’t right now I mean I shouldn’t my ma’s got the car in the morning –“
In or out of context, it sucks cock. The above rambling went on for several more torturous lines, but you no doubt get the idea. Some of you might think it is unfair of me to dismiss that which I haven’t finished, but do you need to watch the entirety of Bad Boys II to know it’s a soul-killing piece of shit? I might be naive, or ignorant, or lacking an English degree, but no amount of academic gymnastics will ever convince me that Mr. Land can write worth a damn. I simply find no pleasure in a lack of discipline, which I believe Mr. Land learned is the “best” way to convey meaning in this land of ours; a land that sees so few books worth reading anymore.
So let this be a warning. Goat: A Memoir is uniquely unreadable; a painful exercise in self-consciousness that does little to advance the craft of writing. Call it minimalism, or the “new prose,” or whatever. By my standards — and you can certainly take them or leave them — it’s simply crap of the highest order, regardless of the subject matter.