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The National
Virginity Pledge:
Short Stories and Other Lies

Barry Graham

" My father and mother are reliving the only day they ever loved each other."

Reviewed by Julia Bohanna

Barry Graham’s characters could never be accused of living lives of quiet desperation. Desperate they often may be but they are predominantly vocal, violent, cynical and visceral in their reactions toward the Little America they inhabit. Careers are distant luxuries. Here, everyone scrapes a living. They fuck, not make love, craving desultory blow jobs as casually as burgers and burritos. Education, as one of the characters states, is for "pussies." Death is ordinary; they are just grateful that it isn’t them. Aspiration of any kind is absent: in Bad Beat, when someone receives good fortune, they still fail at life.

This book drips with testosterone and perhaps may be appreciated more by men than women. Into the stories are dropped hookers, strippers and itinerant women with attitude. The men who "love" them are largely voyeurs on the make. Or at least that’s how they appear superficially. The cleverness of Graham’s writing is underneath this skin of dysfunctionality, we see men who have been emotionally brutalised by their past. Partially broken, they are defending themselves against more pain. 

Men be reduced at times to the sum of their bodily functions and tawdry fantasies, but there are also strong and resonant images presented bluntly, without sentiment or pity. A scene remembered for example, of two kittens purring on the laps of two dead girls. Life is brief. Brutal. Fragile. Into this nihilism slips dry humour and at times, a pinch of surrealism: This Story is Not About Ham and Cheese Sandwiches manages to be irreverent to the reader and then achingly poignant. Parable of the Dead Rolling Snowball is delicious in its strangeness.

References to gambling were peppered through the text. Knowing poker might have helped my understanding. But I related to the human tragedy within All his Chips, as an obsessive gambler destroys something potentially precious.

There are common themes and motifs that run throughout: bad fathers, murdered dreams, crappy marriages. The compulsion to eat fast, greasy food frequently reoccurs. Mankind, through lust and hunger, is reduced to Freud’s primal id. Ego weakly moderates those basic instincts now and again. Rarely does the super-ego, the intellect, control proceedings. Graham leaves the analysis to the reader.

There are plenty of redheads though, in panties and out. A proliferation of blood and accidents. Animals rarely fare well, particularly an ungrateful rodent called Willy. The death of two creatures in a car accident, was for me the most tenderly evoked scene in the book. For a relatively sheltered English girl, my sensibilities frequently took a bashing. Sometimes I had to breathe fresh air, away from the blood, piss and spunk that Graham uses to paint his literary canvases. Interestingly, it made those rare acts of kindness, such a man giving a Cookie Monster toy to a homeless girl, all the more powerful. Mostly, people are corrupt, capable of hatred and disrespect.

This collection is not for those who crave their fictional worlds pretty and life-affirming. But the smells, the images, the nihilistic message, will haunt.

Read the title story from this collection on Prick of the Spindle

 A freelance writer and journalist, Julia Bohanna was shortlisted this year for The Asham Award and the Mslexia Short Story Competition. Publications include Mslexia, The Lancet, The Sunday Telegraph and The Sunday Times and the Penguin anthology, The Map of Me. She has also been placed or won several UK-based magazine competitions and is Assistant Editor of Wolfprint, a conservation magazine.
Julia's other Short Reviews: Nuala Ní Chonchúir "The Wind Across The Grass"

Emerge: New Australian Writing


PublisherAnother Sky Press

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Barry Graham is Editor-in-chief of Dogzplot, as well as teaching writing at Monroe County Community College. He is widely published in Storyglossia, Pindeldyboz, Elimae, Prick of the Spindle, Frigg, Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Thieves Jargon, Dicey Brown, Wigleaf, Cella's Round Trip, as well as many others He is also an avid poker player.

Read an interview with Barry Graham

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