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The Pledge

Kean’s debut falls flat

By Rebecca Loh

Written by Rob Kean

Warner Books, August 1999

514 pp., $24.95

Rob Kean’s first novel, The Pledge, is perhaps the worst book I’ve ever read. Flat, stereotypical characters, an annoying writing style, and an unbelievable plot make for a disappointing reading experience. The book’s only redeeming quality is its pace. Getting right into it from the opening line, the novel’s pace flows smoothly from beginning to end, so even though it constantly annoyed me, it kept me engaged enough to finish it up rather quickly.

The Pledge opens with a death on Simsbury campus. Chad Ewing, freshman pledge to the Sigma Delta Phi fraternity, naked, beaten, and sick from numerous toxins he was forced to ingest, plunges head first from the second floor balcony of the Sigma house. What ensues are Sigma’s wide-range efforts of covering up the signs of a hazing, and the attempts of two Simsbury students to uncover the truth and bring the house to justice.

Some aspects of the book sound oddly familiar. Simsbury College is a top-ranked New England college dealing with the bad press of a possible fraternity hazing. What’s different, though, is that the Sigma Delta Phi fraternity is more than just a frat; its alums are part of a rich and powerful conspiracy that uses any tactic necessary to keep its secrets secret. The reader soon learns that the Sigmas, led by a mysterious man who goes by the name T-Bone, are not above bribery, blackmail, rape, and murder to get what they want.

As outlandish as this plot is, the characters are even worse. The two protagonists, Simsbury seniors Mark Jessy and Shawn Jakes, are perfect in every way -- even in their faults. Jessy is handsome, smart, and one of the best lacrosse players in the country. He is successful in Simsbury, despite being essentially orphaned at age nine and charged with attempted rape his sophomore year (we later learn the charges were false). Shawn Jakes is blond and beautiful, a well-respected scholar with several All-America skiing honors under her belt. Her biggest ‘fault’ is that she doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. The problem with these protagonists is that they’re so unbelievable the reader can’t sympathize with them, or even care about the predicaments they find themselves in.

Dean Anson Templeton plays the typical villain. Corrupted by money and power, this man appears to have been born without morals. Templeton married his wife for the money, is easily bribed, and engages in sex with his students and professors in exchange for favors from the Dean’s Office.

Along with stereotyping his protagonists and antagonist, the author relies on several other stereotypes of college campuses. Kean will have his readers believe that all fraternities consist of handsome jocks who drink themselves stupid at least three nights a week and play games like Boot Tag, “a collegiate contest that requires loving brothers to vomit on one another.” He will also have his readers believe that all feminists are androgynous, fat girls with bad haircuts and even worse attitudes. Fraternity hazing includes such festivities as beating pledges with baseball bats, forcing them to ingest urine, vomit, and feces, and penetrating them with vegetables.

The one good aspect of The Pledge is its pace. From the start, the book moves steadily forward, with never a slow moment. Kean throws out a few surprises and secrets along the way to keep things interesting. If nothing else, I kept reading merely to find out what really led to Chad Ewing’s death, and what really happened the night Mark Jessy supposedly tried to rape a local girl.

Unfortunately, the story is marred by corny phrases and bad dialogue, which remind the reader that this is not some great mystery thriller, but a young writer’s attempt at witty writing. Apparently, Kean thinks descriptions like, “his smile produced two of the greatest dimples this side of brown eyes” makes for good writing. One character describes Sigma as “a ladder of human rungs that marches an evolutionary path to the highest levels of white-collar power this country has ever seen.” I’ve never met anyone who talks this way; I’m not even sure what he’s saying.

Rob Kean’s debut novel The Pledge is an example of bad writing. While he has a good sense of pace, Kean’s characters fall flat, as do his attempts to be witty. The plot, while certainly creative, is simply too unbelievable. Perhaps this author’s sophomore attempt will be less disappointing, though I’m so discouraged by this book I probably won’t bother picking up his next one.