God Is In the (Frat) House


MANCHESTER, N.H., April 11, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Mark Twain's oft-repeated advice for writers—"Write what you know"—is a passkey for some, and an obstacle for others. For novelist and essayist Benjamin Nugent—whose short story "God" has just been tabbed for inclusion in "The Best American Short Stories 2014"—a little of both is true.

A faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA program in fiction and nonfiction, Nugent is more temperamentally inclined to spurn that advice. "God" is set in a college fraternity house, and the house and its brothers are rendered so vividly that you wonder what the author's own Greek letters might be. In fact, Nugent attended Reed College, where there have never been fraternities.

"The scenarios that you find in my fiction generally have little to do with my life," Nugent said. "And I find that useful in my writing. If my conscious mind has little connection to the events being described, this sets my subconscious loose to define what's really going on in the story, and to let it go where it needs to go."

The same sort of magic holds true at the sentence level. The story's protagonist and first-person narrator—nicknamed Oprah "because there were books in my room and I asked questions"—has a voice that throws off sparks in its tensions between irony and earnestness, fear and bravado, innocence and experience. And its similes and nuances come out of deep left field.

Here is Oprah describing Nutella, the fraternity's alpha male: "He had the plaintive eyes and button nose of a child in a life insurance commercial, the carriage of an armored soldier .... He threw his arms around me and Shmash and Stacks, and the blond hairs on his forearms were short and dry. His elbow slid around my neck and it was like rolling on a fresh-mowed August lawn."

The story achieves its own weird poetry, in no small part, said Nugent, because of how alien Oprah's voice is to his own. "If I set out to write lyrical or poetic prose, it's dead on arrival," he explained. "But if I get my conscious mind out of the way, and turn my imagination over to the character, the lyricism happens by itself."

But even the subconscious needs the raw material of experience—if only of the second-hand variety. And so it was that one of Nugent's writing students provided the premise for "God." "It might not seem possible that a girl would write a poem describing a romantic experience with her boyfriend, and that someone in her poetry workshop would share the poem with his fraternity brothers, and that they'd start calling her God for her role in that experience," Nugent said. "But it really happened, and that made me not afraid to try it."

In Nugent's story, Nutella is the first to fail with Melanie—a.k.a. God—and then so does another mighty brother of Delta Zeta Chi. Finally the story's unexpected ending owes something to Arthurian legend—at least as it was dramatized in "The Sword in the Stone." "I think I saw that movie seven times when I was a kid," said Nugent.

So the tale at last is a combination of hearsay and Disney myth and the dark harmonies of unconscious thought—an assembly in other words, of what the writer heard, what he already knew, and what he could only imagine once freed of all that.

The story was published in the fall 2013 edition of the famed Paris Review. Each year a team of editors at Houghton Mifflin scour through the thousands of stories published in magazines and literary journals, and they forward the best of these to a new guest editor-in-chief. For the 2014 edition, those duties are being handled by Jennifer Egan, whose novel "A Visit From the Goon Squad" won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

"Ben read a portion of 'God' aloud at our last winter residency," said writer Richard Adams Carey, the assistant director of Southern New Hampshire's MFA program. "It was entirely hilarious. You need that ending, though, to appreciate the deep artistry of the story, the splinter of heartbreak it contains—and the power of the short story as a literary form, when it's done right."

Nugent is also the author of a novel, "Good Kids" (Scribner, 2013), and a nonfiction cultural history, "American Nerd" (Simon & Schuster, 2009). His essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and on the newspaper's op/ed page.

Many are called, but only twenty are chosen by Ms. Egan. "I got the good news in an email from Heidi Titlor at Houghton Mifflin," said Nugent. The anthology will hit the bookshelves in October.

A photo accompanying this release is available at: http://www.globenewswire.com/newsroom/prs/?pkgid=24736

CONTACT: Richard Adams Carey r.carey@snhu.edu 603.285.7064 603.716.4278Source:Southern New Hampshire UniversityMFA and Creative Writing