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There is story telling and there is compelling story telling. And while author Rashid Darden, in his debut novel, invites and educates us into the clandestine world of fraternity pledging on the university campus, the great conflict that is the bedrock of great literature—romantic love versus service duty—is rather tepidly treated here.
It is as if Mr. Darden is more interested in educating us into every aspect of the college fraternity pledging cycle at the expense of the human drama of lover’s fighting for their love against all odds.
Don’t get me wrong. I am actually quite fond of this book, rich in the details of the great sacrifices one must make if life-long brotherhood is to be obtained. I only wish that the fat for which I had been charged was trimmed a bit, and the story seasoned more for my carnivorous taste, meaty conflicts keeping the reader up at night, biting nails over the dilemma our young pledge Adrian Collins must endure as he is torn between his great romantic love and his love for the fraternal institution, his frat brothers, and his fellow pledges.
The ripe-with-possibilities plot is actually quite good, a sort of “An Officer and a Gentlemen” set on a college campus instead of a Marine training base. Our narrator, Adrian Collins is handsome, brilliant and devoted to serving others, involving himself in community work and total dedication as Vice President of the NAACP on the campus of fictitious Potomac University somewhere in the southeast, where he is a student.
He is also gay and closeted to most everyone but his good friend Nina. But when Savion Cortez, a handsome Latino senior and gifted poet returns to campus and performs, he catches Adrian’s eye and Adrian his. The connection and consummation is almost immediate and we know that this is a relationship that will be very special, and their deep and growing affection for each other helps them decide to come out of the closet together, declaring their love for the entire world to see.
But soon after this handsome couple decides to take this courageous step Adrian is recruited by the Beta Chi Phi Fraternity, which puts the coming-out plans on hold. Savion, more the Bohemian artist with a distinct aversion for the stringencies of the fraternity structure, knows, in spite of Adrian’s assurances, that the pledging ritual—hazing, forced separation, inherent homophobia—would be difficult for both of them. But because it is something that the man he loves wants so badly, he reluctantly goes along with it.
And indeed the pledging process does take its toll, threatening to tear our two heroes apart at every turn.
But as structured here, what happens to Adrian and Savion gets the short end of the stick, while too many details about the pledging process overwhelm the story and bogs it down, often robbing it of its potential poignancy and pacing.
Dialogue heavy, many speeches about what it means to be in the fraternity are perhaps very accurate, but often their clinical renderings make huge chunks read like textbook primers. Even our narrator speaks in an unadorned manner that often tells the story by the numbers instead of through passion. Judicious editing and a slightly more poetic narrator would have made this tome float a lot more buoyantly.
Nevertheless, Mr. Darden knows his stuff, and for all the frat guys out there, the detailed accuracy of the process will perhaps engender indelible memories of an once-in-a-lifetime experience.