The National Virginity Pledge: short stories and other lies, by Barry Graham. Portland: Another Sky Press, 2009.
Barry Graham is the editor of Dogzplot, an online journal known for publishing great flash fiction. I’ve had work in Dogzplot once or twice, so I was intrigued to discover a collection of stories by the editor. Also, what a great title.
The stories in Virginity Pledge are dark portraits of jaded, lost souls: gamblers, dreamers, losers who hold on to something to see them through. That ‘something’ might be ‘the big win’ from gambling, it might be a loved one, or it might be something more personal. In “Cats and Dogs; Like Rain” the narrator has a dream-killing father who opposes his son’s plans to go to college. The son holds on to cats which are the offspring of kittens who survived a tragedy the narrator witnessed. He’s simply biding time until he can get out, while the cats multiply. “Late October” is a glimpse into a failing couple stuck in traffic after an accident. Jake is unconcerned about the accident and wants to go get lunch, but his significant other, who is unnamed, can’t let it go. She gets out of the car and walks over to see the victims, and instead finds deer – the cause of the wreck – which she tends to while Jake continues on his way to Arby’s or Burger King.
These characters are lost souls at least partly because of their surroundings – the people around them are, to put it lightly, scum. From Jake in the story mentioned above who’s more concerned about tasteless fast food than the lives of others, to men and women who break others hearts, steal, and lie for no good reasons. Graham’s characters are – or at least once were – moral beings who’ve been tainted by the iniquities around them. They’re trying to find a path through the moral wasteland of 20-something America. They’re homeless, drug-addicts, immigrants – people on the fringes. Some of them are moral characters desperately trying to maintain morality while surrounded by evil. When they reach out to help others, invariably they’re punished for it, and when they seek help from others, they get little in return other than being taken advantage of.
The title of the book refers a pseudo-Christian movement in which young people pledge ‘no sex before marriage’ as part of the Christian Right’s piss-poor attempts at on-sex education. The fact is that these kids rarely live up to their pledge, substituting other forms of sex for traditional intercourse. Graham uses this idea as a platform to take on hypocritical middle class values in America – his characters lack moral direction because morality has become linked with ineffectual, hypocritical, unrealistic political distractors. Instead of focusing on love, self-respect and respect for others, and true morality, the message to kids is abstinence, which has been shown by every legitimate study to never work. But it sounds good to people who can’t be bothered to think about it.
Graham’s stories are hard-hitting, dark, at times dealing with difficult subject matter. Some of the stories are linked, dealing with the same characters, and certain themes, locations, and other smaller things recur, linking them together. Graham’s writing is clean and crisp. His stories are readable, trimmed down with no wasted words. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.