As the driving force behind the flash-fiction journal Dogzplot and the Achilles chapbook series, Barry Graham was well on his way to making a name for himself in indie publishing circles before his latest collection of “short stories and other lies” came on the market. With the publication of The National Viriginity Pledge, he comes one step closer to having a full-scale juggernaut on his hands. A frenetic, jangled, edgy, tragic, disturbing joyride through angst-ridden Middle America, The National Virginity Pledge feels like a cross between a David Lynch movie and a trip to your favorite dysfunctional uncle’s house — and I mean this in the best way possible.
Let’s start with the David Lynch movie. The first image we get in the collection is that of a vaguely-remembered hit and run accident that leads the story’s protagonist to separate negotiations with a prostitute and a used car dealer in a seedy motel bar in Las Vegas. From here, Graham moves the reader through a series of short stories and vignettes that, through a process of accretion, begins to chip away at comfortable notions like individuality and identity. The hit-and-run driver we saw in the first story may or may not be the online gambler who watches from inside a closet while his girlfriend has sex with a stranger. In turn, the gambler also may or may not be worn-down father who loses and later contemplates killing his children’s hamster. Throughout the collection, Graham provides enough details to suggest that, yes, these are all probably different characters, but the unifying theme of desperation that runs through their lives–and the uncannily identical forms that this desperation takes–hints that they may all be one and the same. Of course, this may well be the point of the collection: the details may be slightly off, but there’s a striking (and horrifying) sameness to the near-infinite number of variations on the American dream throughout the country. We’re not leading lives of quiet desperation, The National Virginity Pledge insists. We’re all leading the same life of quiet desperation–because each of our own lives is more or less interchangeable with everyone else’s.
But then there’s your favorite dysfunctional uncle’s house. As disturbing as they can be, there’s something endearing and familiar about the characters in Graham’s collection. There’s the guy who keeps digging a deeper grave when, after giving the matter some thought, tells his girlfriend that he’d sleep with Monica Lewinsky if he had the chance. Then there’s the woman who honestly believes that winning an Atlantic City bikini competition will lead to something big. There are gamblers and strippers and people in cars. There are people trapped in bad relationships, and people stuck in dead-end jobs. But they’re not just strangers. They’re people we come to care about, and this is possibly Graham’s greatest gift as a storyteller: he depicts what we might otherwise dismiss as the dregs of society in a way that reminds us of their humanity. And of how much we have in common with them.
One other thing worth noting about The National Virginity Pledge is that it’s published by Another Sky Press, which, according to the book’s front matter, operates “under a progressive publishing and distribution paradigm that aims to directly benefit both audience and author.” In short, you can read digital copies of Another Sky Press titles free of charge and pay for what you like–a little like public broadcasting. Additionally, Another Sky offers a sliding scale for bound titles; there’s a set minimum price for each book ($2.68 for The National Virginity Pledge, for example–a great deal in any economy), but you can pay more if you really like the book–not, I suppose, unlike tipping your bartender. And if Graham’s work is any indication of the caliber of titles this press is producing, Another Sky is absolutely worth supporting.
Final thought: I don’t know what font was used in this collection, but its capital Q is pretty amazing. Shell out the $2.68, and turn to page 14 to see what I’m talking about.