Five Lives: The Other Side of the FSM
A Review of GOAT BROTHERS, by Larry Colton
(Doubleday, New York; February 1993. 559 pp.)
By Michael Rossman
I still remember the jocks, from the moment of desperate resolution that jump-started the Free Speech Movement in 1964. As night fell, hundreds of us were still huddled around the cop-car we'd trapped in Sproul Plaza, to keep it from taking a Civil Rights activist to jail for soliciting on campus. By then, Alameda County's Blue Meanies had joined the local forces standing guard, to await 500 more cops already converging with orders to beat us into the ground if we offered any resistance. As we took turns talking to each other from atop the car, in the first true public dialogue I had ever heard, the jocks came drifting down from Fraternity Row to see this bizarre carnival.
They filled Sproul Steps, overflowed on the lawn, until 2,000 ringed us round, advertising their drunken eagerness to help see that the dirty beatniks and their ugly dog women with unshaven legs got what they deserved. We appealed to the cops to intervene, but the Blue Meanies egged them on, until the fratboys were chanting, "Blood, blood, we want blood," more and more convincingly. It went on forever, maybe only an hour, while we flinched from the lit cigarette butts they kept flicking into our jammed seated ranks, still trying to talk to them as well as to ourselves, until finally a Catholic priest climbed up on the car to tell them that the air was heavy with hate and enough hate added up to murder and they should go home and think about that. After that we sat silent for an hour, until their ranks thinned and the last sparks of casual hate dropped in our laps, leaving us to resume our dialogue, preparing for an uncertain dawn.
In that moment when my own life was jumping its tracks, I wondered briefly about theirs. Who were these guys, how could they do this? Were they really as ignorant and shallow and bigoted as the caricatures we derided, the culture we abhorred? Atop the car our spokesman Mario was still appealing to them, his voice hoarse in the hasty floodlights: Come talk with us, this platform is yours too, come tell us how you see it, let us talk together. How could they be reached, were they truly oblivious to the currents of history sweeping us on before their eyes? All I could grasp was the gulf between us, widening as I whirled away. It was years before I wondered what became of them.
Now comes Goat Brothers to tell us, as Larry Colton follows five youths from their college days at U.C. Berkeley in the early 1960s, in a proudly besotted and athletic fraternity, through the social and personal minefields of adult life during the past thirty years. Having had my own shares of confusion at this, I am grateful for anyone who speaks honestly about the process, wherever he's coming from, and Colton certainly has tried. I read his tome eagerly, more hopeful to recognize redemption than I knew -- until I realized how sad it left me feeling, even after I forgave him for his prank.
For Goat Brothers is a shaggy-dog story of sorts, a triumphant technical joke, as Larry lets on casually near its end. Maybe only another writer would see it this way -- you be the judge. See, there's this kid who goes through college as a hard-drinking frat jock with no interest in academics. All he cares for is baseball. Finally, he makes it all the way to the Big Leagues for a few innings. And then he's washed up, split from his wife, adrift, with his mind belatedly kindling. He drifts into and out of teaching, into free-lance writing, and into his old frat brother, Steve, the reckless Adonis, who becomes his best friend as they drift through the Seventies.
One night after their second divorces, hoisting a few to remember old times, they trade notes on how bewildering girl-chasing has become since women's liberation dawned. And on their reactions to a best-seller about the lives of three sorority sisters at Cal. "You should write the male version," says Steve. "Tell our side of the fucking story." You bet, says Larry -- for, like many, he shares the justifiable faith that our own lives are full of meaning. He goes home to start writing notes. Two days later, Steve dies in the crash of his light plane.
Larry broods about it for five years as he drifts through other jobs and other women, free-lancing as a sports writer, growing more confident about his work. Whatever lessons stew in his life and Steve's grow ever richer -- but how to sell the idea? Berkeley in the Sixties is a hot historical location, promising some sort of significance, but it needs something more. One day he turns on the TV, to recognize his old fraternity brother Ox -- the nerdy oarsman who never fit in, whom no one really knew, whom he last saw dancing in goat barf on Pledge Night -- as an astronaut floating in space. Hey, that might do! But support payments are on his back, he takes a full-time job, loses it. It's three more years before he floats the idea past an aggressive agent.
In the tenth year of the Reagan-Bush era, Doubleday decides it may have a modest blockbuster pending in a sportswriter's account of the other side, the fraternal loyalists who stood apart from the student radicals at Berkeley. A week after Larry delivers the full proposal, he's got a contract "in the low six figures" for "the true-life American epic of five men who live out the dreams, failures, loves, and betrayals of their tumultuous generation." All he's got to do is write it.
It takes him five more years to track down other Goat Brothers, finish his interviews, and weave their threads of story together -- beginning with his and Steve's, of course, and Ox's perforce, which take up 350 pages. To fill out the team, he picks players he hardly knew before, Rob and Loren, whose fates provide extreme, colorful contrasts. And we're off in a whirl of significance to ponder the lives of his generation, or at least of the boy part, which is also mine.
So where's the joke? Maybe it's in the low six figures; maybe it's in the way the market works to bring forth artificial work and define it as meaningful. For the story of what a group of young friends make of life is an organic form, rich in its potentials -- but this book is something else. The Goat Brothers weren't close friends; they came from different pledge classes and didn't much hang out with each other. As their brotherhood was not so much personal as institutional, they formed a group mainly in a sociological and retrospective sense, or rather a sample of a larger group. Given this, the story of their lives -- unless transformed by the sort of literary art that Colton doesn't pretend to -- must amount to a sociological study of the institutional culture they shared and represent.
This is in effect what Colton has written; but who'd buy it as such? So here's where the artifact gets truly artificial -- for the book was constructed to win a place on B. Dalton's shelves, and all that qualifies it is its setting in radical Berkeley and its astronaut crown. I think these features are foreign to Colton's basic study and distort it; others may think they deepen and complete it. Whichever, they make much of the book's scheme predictable. One overarching theme must be how the brothers relate to the changes symbolized by Berkeley, as these develop in history and intersect their lives. The other must be a morality play, with the triumph of the brother who soars to the firmament confirming not only the besotted frailty of lesser men, but the virtues of the competitive culture that bound them together.
Given these two agendas, one might anticipate the book's general conclusion -- that the culture of its author's young manhood was pretty much the right stuff and remained so pretty much unchanged, even though it left most people's lives in a lot of confusion and pain. Colton doesn't discuss the contradiction; he's just honest enough to display it at length. To explore it in depth one must seek elsewhere, or plumb his raw material for oneself. But I am more interested in the sad sociological details of Goat Brothers.
One might well cut the astronaut out of the sample, for Ox really didn't belong. He fit the Goat profile only in his scornful insulation from political realities; everywhere else his attitudes were askew. Never noted as a heavy drinker, he married his high-school sweetheart after graduation and remained monogamous throughout the Sixties. Even as a jock he was deviant, investing in a demanding, non-glamour sport that only deepened an isolation from his frat-mates begun with his commitments to study and to his girl-friend. Ox quit crew after two years to concentrate on his engineering, left the frat house the next year, earned straight As and was on his way to orbit. He recalls his fraternity years as the worst in his life, and was glad to leave a childish social club behind for a true fraternity, of naval aviation. His life represents Goat culture only in terms of a vague common denominator of athletics, alcohol, and aversion to activism; a disposition to see the world in metaphors of male fraternity and competition; and attitudes about women and intimate relation that in time left him too among the bewildered wounded -- which may qualify him as a true Goat after all, for the heart of Colton's story is about men and women.
And the heart is set in history. So here are four young men -- Larry the baseball star, and Steve, Loren, and Ron, the football stars, all reasonably intelligent -- enrolling at Cal right after the explosive birth of the New Left in 1960 made Berkeley a permanent national symbol. Three hide from their brothers dark personal secrets, that wrack and shape their future lives. But what they have most in common is an investment in the limited and orderly culture of team athletic competition, as deep and narrow as their individual success. Ron, the weakest bet for further stardom, studies to be an architect; the others can see no farther than their chances to make a pro team.
Facing the chaos of a large campus bubbling with change, each chooses to live in the most conservative bastion of male student culture. The ritual degradation of fraternity initiation -- which Colton recounts with deadpan detail -- binds them intensely into a system not only of traditional values, but of practical insulation from the changes and challenges that animate their peers as history unfolds.
History's methodical drumbeats punctuate the polyphony of Colton's narrative. He goes through every major event in Berkeley and national political history from 1960 into the Seventies, and many minor ones, often in reasonable synopsis, as the lads spend their four years at college and move into the world. Sometimes the events are just pasted in awkwardly as historical backdrop, utterly disconnected. More often, Colton makes them pertinent, and poignant.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, while we're quaking for our lives, the lads bypass the crowds talking in Sproul Plaza, and go to a football game. When U.N. Ambassador Goldberg comes to justify the Vietnam War and the looming draft, they dodge both his speech and the demonstration. When Madame Nhu comes they join the hecklers, but only to chant "I want to fuck your daughter." The Goats feel the glow of Camelot when they hear JFK, and are vaguely depressed at his death; but otherwise seem nearly anesthetized, refusing every invitation to feel politically. One does go listen to James Baldwin speak, and another to Malcolm X, but they make nothing of it. These are the only occasions resembling participation, even in student liberalism, that Colton can extract from their collective twenty years of life in a radicalizing environment.
It's not that they're simply insensitive troglodytes. Several sympathize abstractly with the Civil Rights movement, and Larry goes so far as to write a huge term paper on SNCC -- his most serious work in college, and his first serious writing. But they can't find a way to connect such buds of feeling with a community that might encourage their growth and engagement. Connection is doomed from the start, when they see the first lonely activists protesting nuclear testing and compulsory military classes for men. Though they themselves dread ROTC classes, we repulse them even more as scrofulous bohemians, messy and embarrassing in our manners. Their revulsion grows as their entombment in fraternity culture deepens and we grow hairier, messier, more vociferous and daring, booing the Ambassador, the President, embarrassing the University. Their social insulation is complete: no one responds to a challenging class, makes an activist friend, or even pursues a chick with activist leanings.
So though the Free Speech Movement starts as a Civil Rights defense, the Goats are glad to sign the fraternity petition against it. Larry comes to watch us around the cop-car; Ralph and Loren are there too, probably, yelling, but all Larry can think about is a sorority girl he wants to hustle. A year later, he's grown dubious about the escalating war; but he still loads up with eggs to throw at the first anti-war marchers. Without a single friend to link him in, he has no way to unscramble his feelings.
Not surprisingly, the Goats' college socialization determines their futures as political citizens. Though the draft menaces them all, each squirms privately to evade it. Larry eventually displays a bumper-sticker for McCarthy's peace-oriented presidential campaign. Steve comes to hate the war as a pilot in Vietnam, though he doesn't tell anyone, and finally makes an invisible protest by misdirecting fire into vacant fields. This is as far as any of them goes toward political expression and association. By 1969, Loren is applauding as cops beat up Peoples Park demonstrators, but his response is even more private. The next twenty years of history wash over them as distant spectators, save for when their women bring its issues home.
The Goats' insulation from the activism of their peers had the most drastic consequence for Ron, who experienced a long slide into mental disorder that led him from his architect job to wander empty-eyed through the Haight-Ashbury in the Summer of Love en route to an asylum. But surely social contradiction played a major part in his disintegration. For one of Ron's dark secrets was a small share of Negro blood, though he more or less passed for white.
Ron agonizes over the fraternity's whites-only clause, but joins anyway. He endures four years of routine racist jokes without comment, in the house and on the playing field, where rumors about his race spread openly. He dates only white girls, and finally shares his secret in his deepest affair; she accepts him at first but caves when her parents explode. Meanwhile all the busy currents of Civil Rights activity and emerging Black consciousness poke him with events and everyday reminders. Though he goes to hear Malcolm X, he absorbs every indignity numbly, withdrawn, with no response beyond inner turmoil. Though his Black friends on teams and on campus know him for what he is, he has no idea himself. A pressure-cooker of conflicted feelings, unsure of his identity, he crumbles under life's subsequent pressures for a decade, until he begins to rebuild himself as a more or less Black architect.
How could Ron go through these years at Berkeley without ever talking with another person about race? I don't imagine political activism would have been his cheap salvation. But he could hardly have fared worse by being engaged with others trying actively to sort out and create who they were in the live matrix of history; and he might well have found this healing, as many did. In this light, his choice to join the fraternity was tragic. One might assume that the tragedy was Ron's alone, and that it depended only on the fraternity's racism and its closure to activist culture. But I think the tragedy had a deeper root, in the primordial male culture of the fraternity, that was shared by all the boys, including Ox.
Little trace of this shows on the faces of the other Goats' lives. What's evident instead is the poverty of their fraternal culture in preparing them for life. Ox and Ron compensate by aspiring early to technical careers; but the better athletes are left in the lurch, with only the values of alcohol, pussy, and sport fellowship to guide them as adults. Loren and Steve both blow their chances to make the pros by their casual drunkenness. Loren can think of nothing better to do than make money. He squanders his grandparents' savings, pyramids higher deals by mismanaging his friend the pro quarterback's finances, wheels and deals through the Decade of Greed, does a year in Lompoc Prison for tax sins, and sails merrily on. Steve is content to work in his parents' auto repair shop after he gets back from Vietnam, and drinks and drives until he dies.
Larry alone tries something thoughtful after pro sport spits him out. But he can't follow through with his idealistic shift to teaching, perhaps because he remains nearly as much of an outsider to the activist staff community of the innovative high-school, as to the campus activism of his youth. His disappointed passions shift to freelance writing, as individualistic a sport as any in creation. All he knows is sports, so he writes about that mostly, until he scores the contract for this book; and even then, as he writes about himself, what he finds most interesting (besides woman-trouble) is how he did at sports.
Roughly speaking, then, these fellows' entire academic experience came to nothing in their lives, due to their entombment in jock frat culture. A finer analysis might grant a few crumbs of credit; and surely some other fraternities did better in acculturating their brothers. But what strikes me is the deeper deprivation, at the core of Goat culture, which even the least loutish fraternities of that era shared, and which largely survives.
For what are fraternities about, but how to be men? More than engines of future business connection, they are socialization machines. Scrape off the rituals, the singing and drinking, the athletics; and what remains are the core lessons in how one relates to one's fellows, how one bears oneself as a man among men. And what did the Goats learn at the core, inside the husk of many fine teachings about fellowship, but to hide their troubled selves in mute lies?
Ron never told anyone about the baby he abandoned with his own hands, though guilt wracked him for years, tearing him apart. Steve never mentioned his shotgun marriage, the wife and child only an hour away, whose plaintive calls he dodged. Loren offered no one a chance to ask how he felt when he actually had to wrestle his dad into confinement for alcoholism treatment, or when he was doing his girlfriend Donna's second abortion himself with a plastic tube. As for Larry, he claims his dark secret was his virginity, which cost him some angst before he scored as a senior. But I think it lay more in the contradiction that led him to invest so much in his SNCC paper, which reappeared in other forms (mainly with women) throughout his life and this book, never clearly enough for him to recognize or deal with it, perhaps because he could never begin to discuss it with anyone.
Can there be a key so simple as this, the hiding of the heart, to the lock of silence that was the deepest seal of Goat fraternity and remained its deepest scar upon their lives? Perhaps not. But I'm convinced -- despite all that a methodical feminist might justly observe about the fraternity's rampant, pervasive sexism, and the hundred instances Colton offers of how the Goats reinforced their noxious perceptions of women in the closed cauldron of its culture -- that the root of their collective disaster in relationships, mainly with women, is to be found in the way they learned to be with each other, in the mute catastrophe of male fraternity.
How deep it runs, and Colton's depth as its observer, are suggested near the end, when he considers his own relation with his dad. Nearing 50 himself, after five years' reflection on the carnage he documents, he concludes that the mute, manly pat on the arm -- from the father who never once has hugged him or told him he loves him -- is as articulate and warm an expression as he needs or could desire, whatever the gurus of men's groups might say.
Ah, Larry! You spent even more pages detailing this mess than your own baseball career, but I can hardly bear to sum up its sadness. Between them, from college to middle age, these four Goats left behind eight marriages and eleven other major relationships, plus ten children and at least four abortions. Sometimes they ran, sometimes they were pushed; the details hardly matter, because their failure in relationship was comprehensive, and at its heart almost always the same. The men just couldn't give what the women wanted and needed; indeed, they could hardly grasp what it was.
Though portents of feminism energized us in the FSM, its dilute influence on sorority culture was still distant, leaving the Goats completely insulated during their formative years. By the time the changing consciousness catalyzed by the women's movement began to challenge them explicitly through their own partners, in the early 1970s, they were entering their thirties with their ways largely set. In middle age they were still rating women by their classy chassis, and choosing cars to project their sexual images. Overall, the main contribution of Women's Liberation to their lives -- besides the wreckage of relationships for which they partly blamed it -- was to give them a language to describe the ways in which they failed at relationship, though it didn't much help them to do better.
As the seventies roll on, their collective litany of failure becomes more articulate and plaintive. They learn what the women want, well enough to repeat the words: intimacy, openness, respect, vulnerability, sharing, commitment, accessibility. Yet somehow still they just don't get it. All they're clear about is how bewildered they feel as the demands keep surfacing, the hits keep coming, and they keep failing in a foreign game. They tell the women that they're learning slowly, and it's probably so, but it's too slow for the women to bear. One might think they could find females from their subculture just as slow to change, and they do try; but in time even Loren's dominated partners assert their claims.
At last, in their late forties, the surviving Goats have digested enough to develop partnerships that show some promise of enduring, with perhaps a bit more of what was missing. And so we end with some sort of hope. But oh, the aching hearts and lives! And oh, the children! Colton gives only enough details of the costs of ten childhoods of abandonment to suggest the staggering sum; he would rather show himself and his chums trying to make belated amends. He hardly hints at what the loss of their children cost the Goats themselves, aside from untold guilt, perhaps because he hardly knows.
Most readers will agree with Colton's view that the women's movement made relationships more difficult for men, if only because its cultural resonances led even adamantly non-feminist women to assert themselves more actively at close quarters. Some who've been kneed in the nuts by feminist zealotry may think this the main story of Goat Brothers, though Colton's own view is much fairer. Many may conclude that of all the radical currents stirring in the Berkeley of their youth, only feminism posed a central and enduring challenge to the brothers -- and that their private responses were bewildered, isolated, glacially slow, and generally inadequate.
Though I agree, I think anyone who goes on to read the book in these superficial terms as a political tragedy just doesn't get it. The Goats' patterns of failure in relationships were well-established long before women grew uppity, and persisted through 25 years of changing vocabulary. At most, one might argue that feminism's challenge helped some relationships to fragment that otherwise would have survived -- which perhaps benefited the women, but probably cost the men in the long run, and the children, too. But even this impact is debatable, since the dynamics of breakup that Colton chronicles had much more to do with the Goats' endless infidelity to their partners in the sexually permissive climate they longed for as pledges and found opening as they matured.
"Sexual freedom" was the one point of culture we shared with the Goats, albeit in separate company. In time it strained many of our relationships as flagrantly as theirs, though that didn't keep some of us from making ours more stable and fulfilling. This cultural development predated the women's movement and continued independently until the advent of AIDS. And given how the Goats played around all through this era, the wreckage of their relationships would likely have been little different if the women's movement had never sprouted.
Can it be that feminism has been an epiphenomenon, an analytic distraction, essentially irrelevant to their lives? Probably Colton would debate this, having been as careful to document how much the brothers did learn from feminists as to deny how much more needs learning. But the proof is in the pudding. From the scanty taste that he offers, the patterns and relative decencies of the Goats' recent relationships don't seem markedly different from what one might expect from people of an earlier generation reared in their subculture and arriving at this stage of life, before its precepts were so challenged.
In this light, the pervasive feminist backdrop of Goat Brothers is period costume for an ahistorical tale of fellows so stunted in their youth they could only partially recover late in life. Yet beneath Colton's focus on the failure of relationships lies a fascinating subtext about men and women. After the Goats leave college, almost every excursion they make into new cultural territories is mediated by a woman. Women bring Steve to organic vegetarian cuisine, the New Age psychism of Seth, and building a cabin in the mountains. They bring Larry to vote for peace candidates, to like Kingston Trio concerts, smoke marijuana, eat peyote, and visit a nude beach; they drive him to attend a men's group meeting, which he finds too weird and threatening to continue; they confront him in teaching, where "for the first time [at 34] I was forced to participate in lengthy exchanges of ideas with women I did not want to [fuck]." I imagine the other Goats' lives would have provided more than the few additional examples Colton suggests, if he'd pursued this theme consciously.
In the years of the New Left before Women's Liberation flowered, we used to joke coarsely about women who got their politics through sexual activity. Sexism aside, there was truth within the jest. How curious it is, then, to read this process inverted in the lives of these guys who stood on the other side of my young manhood, fearful of seeming pussy-whipped. It's hard not to sound old-fashioned when one concludes that women are a civilizing force for bestial men; but what's going on here predates Friedan's debunking of the feminine mystique. From my perspective, almost every change the Goats went through that undercut their fraternal culture of pussy, alcohol, bigotry, and aggression, that humanized them and lessened the distance between us, was due to a woman.
"Well, of course," says my mate. "They just didn't know how to get close to another man." Even so, this is the most interesting story I found in their lives, and Colton's most important sociology. To read only its unintentional traces here is frustrating, for I suspect that it determines much more about our recent lives and further prospects than social historians and feminist theorists have yet taken into account.
Michael Rossman was a varsity letterman in wrestling and still lives with the ex-sorority sister who joined him around the cop car in Sproul Plaza.
Published in Berkeley Insider I:4, April 1993
Return to: Top | FSM Contents | Home