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B-a-a-a-d Boys 

You've heard the story before. A fraternity hazing goes too far and a promising young man ends up dead. TV news magazines sensationalize the story, and soon another Greek tragedy joins the ranks of murderous mothers and pedophile priests in the archives of scandal journalism.

But Brad Land has written something fresh on the topic in Goat, his memoir of male-on-male brutality. At 19, Land was abducted by car thieves who beat him horribly and left him bleeding by the side of the road. After recovering from his injuries, Land transferred to Clemson University and pledged his brother's fraternity. The fraternity's hazing was so brutal that Land and his brother quit. Another pledge died of a heart attack.

The experience practically begs for melodrama, but Land wisely resists the temptation. He tells his story simply, in a compressed and tightly restrained narrative. Land relies on stark, small details to show us his emotional disintegration: He stuffs his pockets compulsively with cigarette wrappers, rocks, receipts, a small glass bluebird, a tiger cut from an Exxon card, a plastic leaf from a cemetery bouquet. He plans his approach to sidewalk cracks. He talks to himself.

Land understands his tormentors well. With an honest eye, he watches them almost enviously as they succeed in a culture of aggression that he can never master. Violence is everywhere: in the boy who calls Land a "pussy" for not fighting off his attackers, in his brother and father's plans for revenge, in the rituals of the football team, in the humiliation and injuries fraternity pledges endure rather than face the anonymity of college life alone. Land confesses the fury even in himself and feels inadequate for being too gentle and vulnerable to express it with greater assurance.

When the story works -- and it often does -- Land's staccato dialogue and masculine reserve intensify the impact of his despair. Occasionally, however, emotion suppressed becomes emotion snuffed out, temporarily giving the text the tone of a police report. While Land sometimes overexplains, the common core he finds in criminal, sanctioned and celebrated male violence is convincing and far more insightful than the typical tabloid treatment.

Goat: A Memoir by Brad Land. Random House. $22.95. 224 pages.

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