This Isn’t Who We Are, stories by Barry Graham. Ypsilanti, MI: Achilles Chapbooks, 2012. $8.
Barry Graham has established himself as a bard of the working class. His stories deal with poor and working class people who lack direction, either because of lack of opportunities or lack of hope. These characters live in dark worlds, where morality makes you a sucker, and nobody really cares about anyone, not even themselves. Often, in fact, caring about someone other than oneself leads to the downfall of the character. In his latest short story collection, Graham’s abilities as a writer have sharpened. His characters are well-developed and interesting. His approaches to structure are inventive and work perfectly for his stories. Also, they're so damn good stories.
The book opens with “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Roadtrip,” a story in vignettes focusing on a troubled narrator musing on the darker moments of his life. The story begins, “I killed a woman when I was ten years old. Me; kicking rocks in the middle of the road. Her: taking the blind curve much too quickly.” This innocent but doomed action colors the narrator’s entire life. He, understandably, becomes obsessed with her. This theme of innocence destroying itself through naiveté is prevalent throughout the collection.
“X-Factor” tells the story of a group of divorcees who take up video gaming, specifically “Street Fighter.” The story follows the disintegration of the group as they try to win national competitions. One might expect Graham to focus solely on male characters, but he writes women well throughout. The collection also includes several flash pieces, some with very well-rendered female narrators.
Graham is at his best when he tells hard-luck stories; to clarify, many of Graham’s characters drink, but these aren’t bar stories. “The Same Story: cold war” is a flash piece about a character haunted by his childhood. His torment is focused on a chicken hatchery and an unspecified abuse which leads him, later, to burn down a different hatchery. But the real story is the hidden one; what happened in the closet the narrator refers to but doesn’t explain. “Beauty Forever” is narrated by a brain damaged little girl whose father rescued her from her mother’s suicide/murder attempt. It’s a heart-breaking story, though Graham manages it sans melodrama.
Though it’s a brief collection, Graham reveals a lot of range as a writer in these stories. He touches on magical realism, at times, and has plenty of good, solid, storytelling. If you’ve read and enjoyed his earlier work, you’ll love this one; if you’re new to Graham, this is a great entre. Graham is a writer who’s just climbing to the height of his powers. I can’t wait to see when he gets there.