This Isn’t Who We Are, by Barry Graham. Achilles Chapbook Series, 2012. 70 pages. $8.00, paper.
“And so it begins, like this, waiting too long for a lazy train out of West Toledo.”
Forget that this review is published in November. It is truly October. The beautiful grime of This Isn’t Who We Are will get under your nails and other places you cannot easily access. When I was young, my friend’s cousin killed her pet hamster of two days by hugging him too tightly. Alternatively, my pet hamster squirmed out of my brother’s hands, fell from too great a height, and died. This chapbook is full of destructive love wrought from vice and loose grips. I could not look away, even when I wished I would. That is because the book is voyeuristic. Graham is exacting in his details. He lines up his little darlings and lovingly tortures them for the reader’s amusement.
There is a sense of transportation in this collection, but not in its usual literary incarnation. The opening story, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Roadtrip” starts off this theme with an especially jarring first paragraph: “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.” I can’t remember the last time I read a collection that contained an opening that slammed on the breaks so abruptly, or rather, didn’t.
Graham links this story with several short-shorts titled “Train Tales” and the title story, “This Isn’t Who We Are.” This transportation is different because the characters travel to new locales from time to time, but their condition does not change at all. My vantage point was that of sitting in a train car, watching the train doors slide open at a stop, and learning exactly what is going on in that place at the time, just for the doors to close again and move onto the next stop. These stops, the hissing and steam and the slowing of a train pausing in another nowhere town with no one people, is how this book functions as a collection.
Toward the end of the collection there are three stories with Peter Schwartz that seem not to fit, at first glance. The stories are apocalyptic and deal with extreme weather. These stories fall into place with one simple fact: if there is some control in the world, we do not possess it. All we can do, it seems, is watch everything go to hell and hope for temporary reprieve.
One of the reasons I love collections, besides my ardent belief in the short story as a legitimately compelling and dynamic art form that apples and oranges cannot be compared to a novel, is that it gives the author several chances to open somewhere entirely different, and it provides the reader an opportunity to take a deep breath and be knocked on their ass once more. Graham doesn’t take this for granted. I don’t consider myself squeamish; I kept thinking that I had gotten to the point where I was shockproof with him, but he kept stretching his characters into further depravity. Mr. Graham, you made me blush.
One of my favorite examples of Graham doing a lot with a short word count is “THE SAME STORY: cold war.” The story is nothing but two paragraphs of run-ons and fragments, and yet, the narrator brilliantly tells us his story of growing up poor which meant living close to a chicken hatchery, and how twelve years later he had to burn one down. I found myself agreeing with him in the end. I actually envied his solace, sitting in the jail cell after speaking with the judge. I couldn’t help but shake my head because Graham nailed it within the confines of one page.
Part of the reason Graham is able to accomplish this is because he narrates with authority. Whether I like it or not, I have to take his characters seriously because he is helping them speak and they are speaking loudly. In another short-short, “Down,” Graham seems to be speaking directly to the reader through a few lines in the story, and no matter what he says, the effect is a stern slap in the face.
I also read one of Graham’s earlier collections, The National Virginity Pledge, and I am pleased to report that followers of Graham will not be disappointed with This Isn’t Who We Are. Graham retains his distinctive voice in This Isn’t Who We Are, but he explores new territories, supplying old fans and new readers with plenty to hate and to love.
Many of the stories contain a self-destructive male presence. There is a string of fathers who the reader meets: dead father, dishonorably-discharged father, ice-cream-truck-driving father, but none of them are fathers anyone would want. The sons are even more compelling because they are the results of the monsters and often their own brand of bastard.
The repeated mistakes of the progeny, despite moments of self-realization, reminds me vaguely of the analysis of the pattern of male infidelity in Junot Diaz’s most recent collection, except that instead of This Is How You Lose Her, Graham’s collection is more aptly This Is How You Lose. Since the reader must hold out a shred of hope for each character, because their humanity is illuminating especially during the darkest moments, the collection pleads with the reader This Isn’t Who We Are.
“The X Factor,” revolves around VAG (Vixen Allied Gamers), a group of women who get together and compete to have the best kill moves on Mortal Kombat. It deals almost entirely with this group of women, but even then it seems that men shaped these women into who they are:
We talked about our kids and lovers and jobs and ex-husbands which naturally lead to a pseudo-philosophical discussion of brutally violent video games.
These women recreate violence because men planted that seed. They destroy each other within their dysfunctional family because they’ve learned that love means keeping it going until no one is happy anymore.
Graham may write bastard men, but he writes terrifying women, and it’s wonderful. He offers a truth that maybe I don’t want to hear, but it’s there. All these people get, and all maybe people get in general, is a memory of hope or a better time when things made sense. They’re running from that time because they know they’ll never reach it again—and then, the train door shuts itself, and leaves are falling outside the window because it’s still October because that gives us something to grip tightly in our hands, even if we kill it.
Louise Henrich has been published by FortyOunceBachelors and Danse Macabre. You can follow her @louisehenrich. She is studying fiction at home by reading a lot. She does not play well with others.