It’s no surprise that a novel about Greek life written by a fraternity alum would work to debunk some stereotypes, and readers will find that in Nathan Holic’s American Fraternity Man. What may be more surprising is that readers will also find his characters in all their boozing, hazing, sorority girl-banging glory. This debut novel is a lovingly rendered dissection of Greek Life at both the collegiate and national levels, which brothers and sisters will recognize and which independents will appreciate for its relevance to more universal experiences.
American Fraternity Man follows the misadventures of Charles Washington, a recent college graduate and outgoing president of his university’s chapter of Nu Kappa Epsilon. Eschewing an entry-level position that will lead to a lucrative career, Charles accepts a job as a leadership consultant for NKE. He is young, ambitious, and out to change the world, starting with fraternities. He will bust myths. He will develop young leaders. He will epitomize NKE’s “Marathon Man,” “the hand-drawn diagram in our pledge books that represents everything the National Fraternity wants to build its members to be,” a living embodiment of all that is good about Greek life.
Or at least that’s what he tells himself.
Charles is only just realizing that who he thinks he is and who he really is aren’t exactly the same thing and that the road to the next NKE chapter might just be the road to Hell, complete with his own good intentions. During his travels, Charles is up against distrustful collegiate chapters who see him as the “Fun Nazi,” car trouble and airport woes, public and parental expectations, and Walter LaFaber, NKE’s Director of Chapter Operations and Charles’s boss. LaFaber is at once a champion of values-based Greek programming and a passive-aggressive strategist who requires Charles to turn blind eyes, to lie, and to consider the fraternity’s financial outlook over any professed values. “It doesn’t matter who you really are,” LaFaber admonishes, “it only matters what people think you are.” Meanwhile, Charles is actively avoiding contact with his newly-single parents and is losing his grip on his long-distance relationship with girlfriend Jenn, who has yet to graduate. Charles is learning the hard way that values-based fraternity operations are paradoxical at best. Worse, adulthood, his family, and his sense of self are not what he thought they were either.
American Fraternity Man may be about beer-soaked frat houses and glittering national headquarters, but it also illuminates a number of non-Greek issues that will resonate with readers from all backgrounds. Charles’s story is undoubtedly a search for family. When his seemingly happy, albeit overbearing, parents announce their divorce just hours after his graduation, Charles is secure in his knowledge that “fraternity is family.” But out on the road, working for NKE, Charles is more isolated than ever. The security of his biological and Greek families is gone, and he struggles to find his place, to find people he can trust.
Charles’s story is also about navigating the unfamiliar minefield of adulthood. Charles is a member of the much-maligned millennial generation and finds the transition out of college difficult and not at all what he expected. He left school with a plan—use his position with NKE to land a dream job, marry Jenn, join the ranks of successful and awe-inspiring NKE alumni. The lesson about the best-laid plans comes fast, too fast, and Charles is left reeling, trying to figure out the rules and politics of a game he didn’t even know existed.
The novel also raises probing questions about the search for identity in the shadow of social media. Crafting an adult persona is difficult under any circumstances, but add the digital footprint of a hard-partying fraternity president, and things get even dicier. Charles is determined to shed the college student, Facebook-posting version of himself to become the “Diamond candidate” that NKE leaders at headquarters expect him to be. But even after Charles’s father ominously intones, “I know the real you,” Charles has a hard time figuring out who that even is. He admits, “I was a Public Relations expert when it came to my own persona.” But in his youth and naivety, he is forced to ask himself if there is any real separation between Public Charles and Private Charles. And can a person ever really change?
For all of Charles’s confusion, luckless soul-searching, and astonishing ability to make one terrible decision after another, readers will find themselves rooting for him. This is due in large part to the strong narrative voice crafted by Holic. The first-person narration feels like Charles is confiding in us, and, thanks to his endearing self-doubt, we want to be worthy of his trust. There are brief moments, all occurring in the opening chapters of the book, where Charles’s stereotype-busting sounds more like authorial pontificating, but considering Charles’s goals, the words seem a natural fit in his fictional mouth. Therefore, readers will likely be able to forgive the few preachy moments.
American Fraternity Man is many things at once—funny and tragic, pro-Greek and anti-frat, bildungsroman and travel narrative, indictment of whiney millenials and the adults who made them that way. For GDIs (I’ll let you read the book for a translation of that abbreviation), the novel is a window into a world that is often misunderstood, even hated, but whose inhabitants are no less human, whose stories are no less worthy of telling. At its heart, American Fraternity Man is a book about figuring out a messy life, as all lives are messy. It is a story for everyone, not just the initiated.
Dianne Turgeon Richardson is a native South Carolinian and MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida, where she is a managing editor of The Florida Review. Her work has appeared in The Holler Box, Zaum 17, Blue Fish Digest and is forthcoming inPoem and the anthology A Sense of the Midlands. She was a finalist in Jasper’s inaugural One Book, One Poem contest. She blogs at anoveldianne.com, spends entirely too much time on social media, and is obsessed with college football. She lives with her husband and two mutts in Orlando, Florida. You can follow her on Twitter at @noveldianne.