‘The Dirty One’ by Michael Graves

Set in the declining town of Leominster, Massachusetts in the 1980s, Michael Graves’ blistering debut collection Dirty One (Chelsea Station Editions) depicts the harrowing lives of working-class adolescents on the verge.

In “From Kissing” the AIDS panic stemming from Butch’s first same-sex kiss reveals an unsettling landscape of queer opportunism. “Curls and Curls” introduces nine-year-old Lee who all-too-successfully invokes the magic power of his hair to punish a bully. There’s more going on with her unemployed father than star-struck Cassidy understands in “A Snow Day.” In “The Whole Galaxy,” high school senior Sonny deals his brother’s Ritalin at the skate rink in a bid to scrounge together the cash needed to flee for the west coast. And there’s something peculiar about the way Papi won’t let heavily medicated Otis leave the house or even take a stand-up shower in “Bath Time.”

Reminiscent of Dennis Cooper and Bret Easton Ellis, the antic language of these stories belies a larger, subtly unfolding interiority of sublime horrors. Desperation and an almost willful naïveté color each story, and throughout Graves’ lilting prose produces a welcomed hyper-focused verve in his characters – a sort of sissy magical realism. Escape from the hopelessness of their respective situations is always tantalizingly close, but in every instance a crucial measure of agency is lacking. The factory has left Leominster, Noah tells us in the eponymous story. With it have gone the jobs, but so, too, the toxic smoke. In its place stands a ruin of bricks and a rebounding forest, an ideal place for a rookery, or, perhaps, the perfect setting for a tryst you were sure you wanted right up until the last minute.

The Dirty One
By Michael Graves
Chelsea Station Editions
Paperback, 9781401341763, 152pp
September 2011