Kingsley: A Vomelette of a Book
In 2003, James Frey published “A Million Little Pieces,” a gruesome memoir chronicling his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol abuse. It was picked up by Oprah’s Book Club, and held the New York Times bestseller spot for 15 weeks. It was later deemed a literary fraud, accused of embellishment and fabrication. “Confessions of a Ivy League Frat Boy,” written by Andrew Lohse ’12, could perhaps share this fate.
Before I begin, full disclosure: I am an Ivy League frat boy myself – a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, the same “boring” house Lohse’s brother Jon joined. Maybe because Sig Ep is so dull, I haven’t experienced what Lohse describes. But I am also not an alcoholic or addicted to coke, two things Lohse admits to and blames on Dartmouth’s Greek system. So I consider myself lucky that I’m here, somehow healthy, still in school, surviving Dartmouth and critiquing Lohse’s accounts that unfortunately came in an extremist, overindulgent package.
The book’s small, chronological vignettes, beginning with Lohse’s innocent freshman year at Dartmouth, through his hellish time at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and ending with his departure from the College, initially make it quite the page turner. This is a “de-coming” of age story, an anti-bildungsroman, chronicling Lohse’s deflowering from a high school kid to a perpetually blacked-out, coked-out and checked-out frat star.
Riding the wave of controversy that followed his turbulent 2012 Rolling Stone article — and the column “Telling the Truth” that appeared in these very pages — Lohse expands the saga by over 300 pages, filling the gaps with redundant tales of basements, abuse and self-pity. The book, like how Lohse describes SAE, is both fascinating and repulsive, pulling readers in using “morbid gravity.”
Lohse is relentless in his excessive, lurid imagery. The book recreates what he found in SAE — the exhaustion and nausea of fraternity life create a veritable pledge term of a text. After 90 pages of vomit, pong and enough coke usage to rival Sigmund Freud, Lohse has made his point. If he had stopped there and begun moralizing, I wouldn’t have much to criticize. Yet he insists on dragging us through his kiddie pool of repetitive, rancid stories, with chunks of wasteful anecdotes and spoiled writing bathed in bombast to remind us that he’s an Ivy League writer. Like a vague drunken memory, it all blurs together by the book’s conclusion.
Adding to the slurry is Lohse’s favorite rhetorical device: waxing nostalgic while undergoing some frat abuse, which turns the pathos knob up to 11 then snaps the handle. On the first page he wonders if the vomit dripping down his neck resembles amniotic fluid. He compares a kiddie pool filled with ice water that he had to submerse himself in to the childhood pool in which he and his brother would play while his parents watched in loving delight. As he climbs the steps to meet with The Dartmouth‘s editor-in-chief, who is about to publish his name in a story on his recent drug arrest, he ponders how many times his grandfather “floated across these same tiles.” He infantilizes himself, adopting an obnoxiously transparent, cherubic mien to become a martyr pleading for our sympathies.
But who will sympathize with a condescending misanthrope whose hatred for SAE and for himself spills out into every nook and cranny of Hanover life. Like Holden Caulfield with a filled diaper, Lohse tantrums over Dartmouth’s dorms and decaying trees, a sloppy waitress, an aged CVS employee with “sagging, leathery jowls” and a funeral parlor-esque video store. He transforms the freshman bonfire ritual into a cultish “Young Goodman Brown” scene. Everyone on campus is a sinful, money-hungry Wall Street chaser. When the Dartmouth world painted is so extremely depraved, one begins to doubt the author’s credibility. Lohse’s perspective on the world is like that of a person who only sees death in a Rorschach test. No, Andrew, those are just falling leaves in October — please stop making them metaphors for the decay of life at Dartmouth.
There is a morbid allure to his stories — namely, what if this were all true? These tales of vomelettes, kiddie pools of excrement and chugging vinegar are so gruesome, they seem impossible to fabricate. Truth may well be stranger than fiction. Even if his allegations are true, towing readers through this slogfest feels like an act of hazing itself. Lohse becomes our pledgemaster. Delighting in our horror, he barrages us with detail without an endpoint in sight. I came to resent Lohse both for his senseless participation in these heinous situations and for the way he put me through them.
Lohse never seems to make sense of his own experiences, and he repeatedly justifies his motives. He writes as if being psychoanalyzed, claiming he suffered from Stockholm syndrome, offers up his dreams for our analysis and blames the intoxicating grandeur of the sadistic, masochistic fraternity for his tolerance. He even pushes the blame for publicizing these stories on his brother and his boyfriend, who cajole him into their “top-secret plan,” labeled Project Hot Fries, to take down Dartmouth Greek culture. He claims that he blew the whistle so that no one will repeat his experiences. He even writes that he did not intend to embarrass the school. I suppose portraying Dartmouth as a dystopia doesn’t count. The shattered beer bottle on the cover should spray dollar signs. It seems that’s what this book is for — if Lohse couldn’t make it on Wall Street like all of us surely will, he’ll make it in print, beating this dead horse until it stops spitting out money.
The book derives tremendous strength from its cover alone. “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy,” it reads. The Ivy League — the ultimate name drop — perks up would-be readers’ ears. It represents prestige and excellence, and those who sit on its pedestal become the easiest targets. Just think of the Harvard University cheating scandal of 2012 or Princeton University mom Susan Patton’s 2014 book, “Marry Smart.” Each is horrendous, but these events inspire schadenfreude in their audiences, who glut themselves on these felled sacred cows of the Ivy League. Now Dartmouth has assumed its place at the guillotine, a public spectacle for the many who have waited for their suspicions of Greek life to be validated. In making himself out to be the prototypical Dartmouth student, Lohse dangerously perpetuates the stereotypes of the legacy, Republican, J. Crew-only, screw-school, coked-up alcoholic. By exploiting these hackneyed labels and founding his stories on them, Lohse prompts audiences to believe him, wave their fists and shake their heads while thinking, “I knew it! Those fraternities are nothing but…(insert cliché).”
Ultimately, the book itself is a vomelette, made from the cracked Fabergé egg of Dartmouth and filled with Lohse’s excessive, regurgitated tales. Yet many will eat up Lohse’s fare, sympathizing with the wide-eyed, blue collar neophyte catechized by the cultic demonism of SAE and Dartmouth. Lohse has peed into the Dartmouth punch. I only hope few drink, and if they must, they have the sense to spit it out.