Tuesday
Jun032014

American Fraternity Man

By Nathan Holic


 

Beating Windward Press
June 2013
978-0983825289

Reviewed by Lavinia Ludlow


 

In Nathan Holic's American Fraternity Man, Charles Washington, a recent graduate and former president of his Nu Kappa Epsilon fraternity chapter, embarks on one of the most humbling experiences of his life: transitioning from college to the workplace.

Like many Generation Y college graduates, Charles believes that his first job out of college will reap him unconditional glory, success, and respect, and he accepts a position with the National Fraternity Headquarters:

to prove everyone wrong about fraternity life, and in the process prove that I am everything that the textbooks and newspaper reports claim that ambitious young people in America should be: adept with technology, great at problem-solving, armed with a sense of humor and a disdain for the old Gen-X apathy and unrelenting sarcasm. That's right: we were not a horde of Facebook-addicted zombies, but instead the smart and savvy youth who would change the world. That was me, that was me!

His mission as an Educational Consultant: to "save the world of fraternities and sororities" by investigating policy violations and acting as a "Beacon of Leadership."

With an optimistic outlook and an overconfident skip in his step, his disastrous graduation party foreshadows unfortunate events to come. His fraternity's new masthead hijacks the center of attention and robs Charles of the opportunity to "lavalier" his girlfriend; he has to field an unending slew of judgmental remarks from his hypercritical "hardened businessman" of a father; and his mom gets trashed and passes out in the bathroom, later revealing that she and his dad have been divorced six months. It's obvious Charles is going to confront the rock bottom of the cold and conniving real world the moment he steps off the curb of his college campus.

A failed "senior send weekend" later, Charles kicks off his semester-long whirlwind of a twenty-eight school tour, which sends him senselessly zigzagging back and forth across the nation from Kentucky to Pennsylvania to New Mexico to Texas to California and the midwest. Throughout his travels, he experiences the first-hand alienation of being an unwanted stranger in numerous strange cities. He's left his friends, family, and girlfriend to travel from one crusty frat house to the next, staving off the verbal abuse of "brothers" that call him the "Fun Nazi" in one ear while the scheming National Fraternity Headquarters directors bark scandalous orders in the other. His unyielding schedule also affects his tumultuous relationship with his parents and his girlfriend, who he interacts with primarily through passive-aggressive Facebook "relationship status" updates rather than directly over the phone, text, or email.

The endorphins of being a big shot on campus and a recent grad immediately leech from Charles' system as he comes to terms with how unglamorous the life of a fraternity narc is, especially when he's funneling his $33 a day salary into transportation costs, eating mass-produced cafeteria frat house food and gas station processed junk, and crashing in seedy motels when there isn't a spare bed at the frat house or room in the backseat of his car because it's filled with dirty laundry.

Over the course of the novel, Holic effectively frames Charles' state of mind by letting the narrative unravel from being crisp, positive, and refined, to being informal, jaded, and cynical. From time to time, Charles gives himself third-person pep talks, speaks directly to the reader, or goes off on a stream of consciousness Q&A, rants that maintain tension and evoke sympathy for the once bright-eyed, but now floundering twenty-two year old.

Inevitably, Charles realizes how misguided it was to put a job ahead of his physical, mental, and emotional well-being, especially when he's a pawn carrying out the political agendas of the National Fraternity Headquarters' sleazes. He relapses into the behaviors of a stereotypical frat boy, takes a road trip to Mexico with a carload of students, gets plastered at a bar, hooks up with a sorority girl, and ditches out on her the next morning—not because he's coldhearted, but because he's led her to believe that he is a student instead of an Educational Consultant who has authoritative power to shut down frat houses by narcing out violations.

Ironically, Holic's subject isn't a stereotypically entitled and lazy Generation Y-er. Charles willingly uproots his life, leaves behind his friends and family, and sacrifices the comforts of a permanent residence to hit the road as an Educational Consultant making $12,000 a year. He merely starts off all too sure that everything will come to him with exciting, yet manageable, obstacles, and he'd persevere against those odds and use them to prove to everyone, including himself, that he was an independent and hard working adult, which makes his fall from grace that more dramatic.

Never laconic, Holic describes every interaction and scene in immense detail. His descriptions of the crusty frat house accommodations are particularly engaging and vivid:

I'm at the University of Pittsburgh now, in the Chapter Room of a crumbling two-story fraternity house so rife with a rotten-orange-juice smell that I've been fighting my gag reflex since I arrived two days ago [. . .]. Among my job responsibilities: document and report any damages to alumni-owned housing facilities. But where do I start? The burn marks on the front door, perhaps? The rotting railings of the front porch? The stagnant liquor-beer-trash-water in the dark corners of the basement? [...] I'm sitting on a sofa so saturated with beer, liquor, wine, soda, and cereal milk that the cushions are probably more liquid than solid. [. . .] The ceiling fan rests motionless overhead, broken and beyond repair, its blades (and the ceiling itself) splashed with dried caramel-brown blotches. The chapter president told me that someone tossed an open beer into the fan as it spun, and instead of scrubbing the splattered mess with hot water and a sponge and 409, the chapter's elected House Manager pulled a can of spray-paint from the supply room and drenched the stain with a coat of white paint.

The novel also contains a few comical sketches of Charles throughout his endeavors. At the start of the tour, he looks and feels like this:

But the wear and tear of inhospitable travel, living, and working conditions turn him into this:

 

Holic, who's a phenomenal artist, might have muted some of the lengthy scenes and character dialogue, and leveraged more drawings to move the plot forward. Rather than serve up an amuse-bouche sampling of handwritten lists and portraits and a scattering of a few sketches and diagrams, he could have indulged the reader with a consistent supply of graphics.

In the end, Charles gets his life together, follows through with his commitments, and stays true to himself as he transitions from a college student to a working adult. He might have lost the battle as an Educational Consultant, but he wins the war against professional, personal, and internalized adversity. Impeccably written and illustrated, American Fraternity Man is an ambitious debut novel about a former frat star's plummet from the peak of his game.