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8.29.2011

Book Review: Dirty One

Dirty One
by Michael Graves
(9780983285106)

Born in 1978, Michael Graves was a child of the 80s. If his collection were a song, it would be the punkish, bass heavy, plastic sounding "Kids in America," by Kim Wilde. The stories even take place in Plastic City, Lemonister, MA.

It's all here: Walkmans, cassette tapes, jelly bracelets, perms. On the one hand, this is expected from every author: to write what you know. On the other, Graves's work wades nears transgression and absurdism. Instead of dwelling on the banalities of everyday life, Graves characters are outrageous drug fueled, sex crazed, self-centered teenagers. Whereas everyone in the eighties (or writing of the eighties) focused on dirty realism or America's golden age of padded  shoulders, Graves's world is refreshingly queer and odd and fun.

Here, the kids watch TV and quote songs. They cuss and have sex. And they're vain. Yet their vanity is their charm. The inability to see outside themselves is both farcial and tragic. His characters are perhaps thorough reflections of ourselves and our desires and our naivety. "Ya don't have to come out if ya don't want to," says one character, after kissing a boy and getting a cold. "but I gotta tell ya somethin'. I think...I know that we're sick. We're very sick. With AIDS."

The strongest story of the set is undoubtedly the title story. In "Dirty One" we're introduced to Noah, who has a crush on his friend Ben Erickson. What comes off at first as a tale of same-sex desire quickly escalates into something violent that leaves the narrator, if not scarred, then at least give him an understanding of the dirty world his mother can't escape and of which he must eventually become part. What is learned is that there is a whole another world outside of the self, and that that world isn't all its cracked up to be. Graves explores that line between childhood and adulthood, pinpoints the way we linger there without even noticing it.

He uses kids take use aspirin and ritalin like cocaine ("The Whole Galaxy") and explore sexuality through childhood playtoys ("Doing It"). THe conflcation and juxtaposition is sweet and bitter: it's a type of sinister that tells us that these are not just innocent gestures, but are in fact, ways of blinded navigation as his characters grow from being reckless youth to reckless near-adults.

At the same time, Graves's prose is highly controlled, influenced by the likes of Raymond Carver, with the quickness and quirkiness of Daniel Allen Cox. At times loud and funny, at times quiet and beautiful:

"It's so quiet out here," Seth says, "Kinda scary. Feels like we're the only ones awake. In Leominister. In Massachusetts. In this country. In this whole galaxy."

Graves's collection is about the extremes: drugs and sex, everywhere. Yet it's within this type of culture that his characters must navigate with their own loneliness into adulthood.

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