Book Review: Goat Brothers by Larry Colton

Goat Brothers
by Larry Colton
Publisher – Doubleday
Copyright 1993
559 pages

Rating – 9/10

Summary – In 1977 Sara Davidson published a memoir titled Loose Change, which recounted the lives of Davidson and two of her sorority sisters from the University of California (Berkeley) from the early-1960s to the mid-1970s.

In 1979, Larry Colton and Steve Radich, two men who had attended Berkeley during the same period, were discussing Davidson’s book. Radich told Colton (a journalist) that he should write about some of the men who attended Berkeley at the same time. Perhaps surprisingly, Colton followed through and the result is Goat Brothers.

Review – Back in the early-1960s, five men pledged the “jock” fraternity at the University of California – Berkeley. Over the following three decades, against the backdrop of a changing America, these men found their way in the world – albeit with many wrong turns. One of them – author Larry Colton – recounts their five stories in the compelling Goat Brothers.

Who are the five “Goat Brothers?”

In their fraternity’s argot, Goat Brothers were the pledges (prospective members) who went through Hell Week together before becoming brothers (full members). The five men in Colton’s book are –

  1. Larry Colton – the author and chief protagonist. Colton was a Cal baseball star who married actress Hedy Lamarr’s beautiful daughter, Denise. Colton made it all of the way to baseball’s major leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies. But the dream was not what he’d thought it would be. Eventually, Colton landed in Portland where he lived a hand-to-mouth existence as a freelance writer and single dad. You have to give Colton credit for telling many unflattering stories about himself. (He also tells unflattering stories about his buddies and this “warts-and-all” characteristic helps make Goat Brothers very readable).
  2. Loren Hawley – a star football and rugby player at Cal – and the life of every party. At Cal and afterward, Hawley was best buddies with quarterback Craig Morton, who went on to a long NFL career. Stories of Hawley’s partying are some of the best reading in Goat Brothers. Unfortunately, Hawley was also the child of a dysfunctional family, a world-class dissembler who brought pain into his life – and the lives of many whom he touched. Hawley is the most-ambivalent character in Goat Brothers.
  3. Like Hawley, Steve Radich was also a football star and –  again like Hawley – he evokes ambivalent reactions from the reader.  Radich had many secrets, perhaps that biggest was that he had gotten a woman pregnant and “done the right thing” by marrying her before their son was born. At that point, Radich stopped doing the right thing and had nothing else to do with his wife or new son. As the years passed, Radich (who worked at his family’s successful car dealership) drifted, searching, from one thing to another while engaging in riskier and riskier behavior.
  4. Jim van Hoften – who was on the crew team at Cal, was an achiever and the most likable of the group by far. He was always an outcast in the fraternity and would later recall his four years at Cal as the worst time of his life. But after Cal he went to graduate school, became a fighter pilot, then a college professor, and later an astronaut on the Challenger space shuttle. Seemingly, van Hoften was the only one of the five to escape the 1960s without deep scars.
  5. A third football player, Ron Vaughan had the saddest story of the Goat Brothers. Unbeknownst to anyone, he was one-eighth black in a fraternity that did not admit blacks. Vaughan bore down while in school and earned a degree in architecture. But after Cal, he drifted into homelessness and mental illness, enduring several hospitalizations. Ron is likable, but he’s something of a “sad sack.” The reader wants him to stand up for himself.

How Unique?

One question that dogs the reader is how typical these five men are of their generation. Certainly, they lived dramatic lives in dramatic times. Disappointment left many of them with lingering unhappiness, particularly toward the women in their lives. But were these guys were unique? After all, most of us find that many of our youthful goals were unattainable – or not what we wanted to achieve, after all. Moreover, few of us escape love’s slings and arrows completely unscathed.

Boys versus Girls – Colton’s Goat Brothers versus Davidson’s Loose Change

Is the “sequel” (Goat Brothers) better than its original inspiration (Loose Change)? This is a difficult question. I prefer Goat Brothers, but a woman might prefer Loose Change.

In my humble opinion, Goat Brothers is superior because it follows the characters into their early-50s, while Loose Change follows its characters only into their mid-30s. The women in Loose Change were still “works in progress”at the time of its publication and it is difficult for the reader to see what they would make of their lives. A second reason that I prefer Goat Brothers is that Loose Change author Sara Davidson used pseudonyms for her sorority sisters and changed some details of their life stories. I much prefer Colton’s use of his fraternity brothers’ real names and their true (if sometimes-messy) life stories. (Goat Brothers also has photos of the characters, which Davidson obviously couldn’t include in Loose Change if she wished to protect her subjects’ privacy).

Still, you can’t go wrong with either book. (My 2012 review of Loose Change is here – https://mobilemojoman.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/book-review-loose-change-three-women-of-the-sixties/).

SummaryColton’s Moment

In Goat Brothers Larry Colton recounts his long career as a writer, with its many ups and downs. I believe that – when it’s all said and done – Goat Brothers will stand as Colton’s “moment” as a writer. He makes you care about these guys – warts and all – for 560 pages. He also makes you reflect on the long, winding path that your acquaintances and you are taking through this world.

Reading Goat Brothers is a big investment of your time, but Colton makes it a rewarding experience. (Twenty years after initial publication, readers will want an update on these five; a few updates are available on the ‘net).

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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