One of the great joys of doing this blog is that
occasionally I run across an author whose work I’ve never read before but grabs
me almost immediately—seizing me by the throat and touring me around a twisted
world I’ve never before experienced. Michael Graves is my latest demented tour
guide and Dirty One, a collection of his short fiction, is a perfect gem
of multi-faceted characters with flaws aplenty.
The young adults that populate Graves’ fiction are skewed,
skittering through their adolescence with a drug- and demon-fueled intensity
that leaves the reader breathless and aching to sit down with these poor kids
to let them know that things do, indeed, get better. Still, the kids are only
following the examples of their even more fucked up parents, most of whom have
no business having kids in the first place. But the drama… The drama is
delicious and makes for some of the finest reading I’ve had in months.
The nine stories comprising this slim, power-packed volume
mostly take place in the suburb of Leominster, MA and while they don’t all have
the same characters, they all have the same odd American Gothic feel of
alienation and separation. For example, the opening story, “Comb City” features
eight-year-old Philip, separated from his mother and his birth city because his
celebrity father needs a place to recover from recent plastic surgery away from
the paparazzi. Philip, of course, acts out—much to the dismay of his
neighbor’s cat. In the sly “From Kissing,” a sixth-grader named Butch, who
loves making friendship bracelets with his cousin Sherrie, goes to the monster
truck rally with Milo, who slips Butch his first tongue kiss. When Butch comes
down with the flu, he’s convinced Milo has given him AIDS. From the vaguely
creepy “Bath Time” to “Do It,” in which Denise pines for a boyfriend who can
make love to her and maintain an erection, Graves’ kids use every resource they
can to cope with the unfair and unreasonable burdens with which they are saddled.
Two stories, however, continue to stick with me days after I
finished the book. “A Snow Day” captures
teen idol wanna-be Cassidy whose father is the town’s infamous gay pedophile.
Its ending—which has nothing to do with molestation—is so shocking, so unexpected,
that I had to read it a few times to confirm what was happening. Then, I closed
the book and thought about how remorselessly evil some people can be.
“Seahorse” is the story of a huffer named George, his boyfriend Woody and
George’s quest to have a baby. And—as I now remember—it was one of the best
tales in Blair Mastbaum’s terrific anthology of a few years ago, Cool Thing.
But none of these plots would mean a thing if it weren’t for
Graves’ prose style, which incorporates all senses to hurl you into a world of
simple images so startlingly true they could be poetry. Hell, they are
poetry. His dialogue sounds so natural, it could have been overheard at the
mall. Graves is one of the most original young voices writing for our community
today—so pick up a copy of Dirty One and you can tell your friends that
you were a fan from the beginning.
Because you will be.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler