'Total Frat Move' Updates Animal House in a Depressing Way
Pride, honor, and eating a Marlboro cigarette sandwich: this fictionalized account of fraternity life is somehow too grotesque to be shocking.
Total Frat MovePublisher: Grand Central
Length: 272 pages
Author: W.R. Bolen
Publication date: 2013-01
How do you turn a blog into a book? Often, the transformation is quite literally screen-to-page. The images of Failblog or Lolcatz or This Is Why You’re Fat are reprinted onto glossy paper and sold in their physical format at Urban Outfitters. Collections of clever tweets (Twitter Wit, Twitterature) get the same treatment.
Total Frat Move does it a bit differently. In its online incarnation, it’s a repository for varying boasts and pieces of advice: users can post their lurid frathouse stories, discuss which model of handgun they prefer for home defense, or watch a video that tells them how to remove a woman’s bra with one hand. In book form, it’s a fictionalized narrative of one man’s journey from semi-innocent freshman to debauched fifth-year frat hero.
Total Frat Move is Texas State alum W.R. Bolen's attempt at a “national update on college fraternities,” because “Greek life today makes Animal House look like a Pixar movie.” And if this book is any indication, fraternities in America have indeed reached new levels of savagery. Once upon a time, Otter fraternized with the Dean’s wife and Bluto started a food fight. Now toga parties involve tubes of paint (“an orgy with multicolored lube”); kids snort cocaine off iPads; winning acceptance to a fraternity means having to eat chewing tobacco, Crisco, and dog food; and spring break costs about ten grand a person and results in at least a dozen arrests.
Apparently, spanking with paddles (à la Dazed and Confused) is still an appropriate initiation ritual for young men. Some things never change.
Our protagonist is Townes Prescott III, a rich legacy kid (his father donated the basketball court in the “frat castle”) who pledges at Alpha, the best fraternity at Townes’s unnamed Southern university. Over the course of the story, he recounts the key moments in a young frat boy’s life. There’s the first instance of sex with a sorority girl (his is interrupted by “an ill-timed cannon explosion”), and the bid night, the hell week (where he eats a cigarette sandwich and sleeps “on the floor of a basement covered in puke”), and the tailgate party.
Townes is half Holden Caulfield, half Patrick Batemen. He revels in his ability to be a jackass but expresses embarrassment for the actions of more out-of-control brothers. He calls women “slampieces” and rates their looks on a scale of 1 to 10, but he prides himself on his ability to please them in bed. He acknowledges the ridiculous nature of such fraternities -- acquire a nice house only to destroy it, puke up beer only to drink more beer the next morning, suffer abuse at the hands of senior frat members only to abuse the incoming class of freshman -- and perpetuates it with all his might.
As a cultural artifact, Total Frat Move feels flimsy and disposable, not worthy of an uproar from feminists or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Outrage at the sexism, hazing and risky behavior of fraternities happens after real tragedies (like the death of Cornell student George Desdunes in a hazing incident involving the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity), not after the publication of so-called fiction. And as a fictionalization, there’s not much structure or style going on here -- it isn’t a campus novel, but rather a series of anecdotes, relayed with colorful and repetitive details from Townes. Here’s a Hell Week conversation between Townes and his militaristic pledge trainer:
“Sir! Alpha-Beta-Gamma-Delta-Epsilon-Zeta-Eta-Theta-Iota-Kappa-Lambda-Mu-Nu-Xi-Omicron-Pi-Rho-Sigma-Tau-Upsilon-Phi-Chi-Psi-Omega!” Pure adrenaline to save my pledge brothers from permanent elbow scarring had gifted me with a momentarily blazing intellect. Just when I was about to give birth to one happy thought, Mr. Weston violently aborted it.
“Where the fuck was my sir sandwich, Prescott? I had only given him one slice of bread.
“I don’t want a poor man’s hot dog bun! Again!”
Characters are individualized by their reputations (the pledge trainer, “The Maglite”) or by their outlandish comportment (the guy who drops acid and lights a volleyball net on fire, the guy who faints in a panic after a night of hazing grows too violent), and the structure follows the rambling speech patterns of a drunken bar yarn.
After a while, the story breaks down into a blur of excess: kegstands, slurred words, sloshing and blackouts. Townes begins to sound less like a frat champion than a washed-up, wistful adult manqué, insistent upon his college domination, convinced that nothing will ever be quite so good again. A small moment of (sort of) genuine emotion, after 272 pages of benumbing frat prattle.
After all, like the blog it was born of, Total Frat Move preaches to the button-down-and-boat-shoes choir. It validates the absurd experiences of contemporary fraternity brothers, and alienates those who have purposefully alienated themselves from that culture. You’re supposed to read it to laugh along and nod. You don't read it to learn something new, to be shocked, or to be convinced that learning the Greek alphabet backwards and licking alcohol off a sorority girl’s stomach are life-affirming activities. W.R. Bolen and the men behind the blog know whom this tome will attract. Like the upperclassmen overlords at the end of a pledge party, this book has already selected those it wants to entertain.