Barry Graham is one of those writers who, after you’ve encountered their work somewhere, you keep on the look out for. His voice just sort of grabs a hold of you and demands that you look for more. Because I’ve been reading him for a while, I was quite pleased to see that he had produced this (sadly slim) collection of short fiction.
When The National Virginity Pledge showed up in the mail I devoured it almost immediately, then let it rest a couple of days before reading it through again for effect. Graham writes about losers, lowlifes, the downtrodden and every manner of deadbeat. And yet, he never seems to pity his characters. He portrays them, often in the first person, as whole, complete, terribly flawed people. He gives perfect voice to characters that we probably shouldn’t like, but finally do.
There are tree themes that run through many of these stories: trouble with women; drinking and poker. All three happen to be dear to my heart. When Graham describes a fellow holding quads getting cracked by a straight flush I couldn’t help remember shoving eight hundred dollars into a pot holding kings full and getting called by an old man with four sevens. When it happened to me it felt like having a reciprocating saw slammed into my gut, and I could tell that Graham knew the feeling. That’s not to suggest that this is a book for those interested in the minutia of Texas Hold ‘Em. One only needs to know what it feels like to lose when you were certain that you would win to get his point.
Throughout it is the same with women. Graham’s characters work at relationships (or at least getting laid) only to fuck it up by asking for too much or too little. He plays with grief and betrayal like water colors, and spreads them beautifully across a human canvass.
It may be useful to return to poker metaphors to discuss thee sexual escapades in the book. When a judge in a beauty contest promises a win to a contestant in exchange for sex, he is bluffing. When a teacher admits to a student exactly what fantasy was in his mind when she thought he was just looking at her breasts, he is going all in. That’s part of the beauty of Graham’s writing. His characters act with perfectly realistic imprecision that almost seems like beautifully planned out game theory in action. Grabbing an aluminum bat and taking vengeance on the pick-up truck of the guy banging your ex-girlfriend might seem insane to the passerby, but must seem sublime inside your own head. And here I’m rambling.
Perhaps the best of the stories in the book is “Sherman Alexie and Monica Lewinski Fistfight in Heaven” (the title an obvious play on Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”) in which one of those old parlor games in where couples agree that each can choose one famous person to cheat with goes sour. The joy in this story comes not so much from the action, which is almost foreordained from the first sentence, as from the way Graham draws the characters. These are real people and their emotions, their reactions ring true at each step.
All in all, The National Virginity Pledge is a great collection from a writer well worth watching. I only wish it had been much longer.
Any Cop?: This book is too damned short.