Reviews, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008
Paper Hero Press, Achilles Chapbook Series, October 2008
Staple-bound, 28 pp.
Review by Cynthia Reeser
There’s no earthly way of knowing
Which direction we are going
Not a speck of light is showing
So the danger must be growing
With the entirety of Gene Wilder’s infamous Willy Wonka monologue (think psychedelic tunnel scene) prefacing Barry Graham’s recent publication, Not a Speck of Light is Showing, you know you’d better pay attention. As an opening to this collection of flash fiction, the verse paves the way for acknowledgement of a potential for dark humor, or possibly for a humorous darkness. Both are true at times throughout the work, as it turns out.
What does follow does not live up to the title. Specks of light come through, in spite of indications to the contrary. The most prominent example is in “Apollo 77,” where a prophecy of the death of a favorite son by train prompts the speaker to tempt fate:
The train was black and the sky was robin’s egg blue. I heard the whistle. I waited thirty-seven seconds then headed for the tracks. I picked up speed. I ran, fast, faster than the train, faster than sound and light and the space time continuum. I tripped on the edge of the tracks and rolled and rolled and kept rolling.
The beauty of both language and narrative flow are chilling points of light in this story; in others, like “Toothbrush” and “Every Time I Wiggled,” humor provides perspective for the rest of the works, which are not so light in tone.
In “Cream of Wheat” and “Parable of the Dead Rolling Snowball,” the poignancy lies in the evidence of the strength required, for some, to simply continue existence—forget happiness or well-being. The beauty of prose like this is in an ability to rise above a negative environment and/or upbringing. “We Grew Up to Be Astronauts” is another example, another parable of a survivor’s story and hence, another speck of light. Even as damaging situations are related, there is a love of language and careful attention to words that provide a spark of hope, as is also notable in “Caved In.” The light is the hope that the reader has for the narrator for a better life; it is the evidence that there is meaning in in spite of everything else, and the potential for something better.
But there is a point where the tales drop off into narrations of situations for their own sake, as in “Negotiation,” “Dripping Wet,” “A Big Blue House with White Shutters,” and a few others. What is lacking here (for this reader, anyway), is an indication of meaning or the promise of rising above hardship or something beyond the immediate scenario. Others, like “Too Private for Words or Fingers,” are gritty, but there is honesty in the grittiness. For example, there is an intimacy and attention to language that are rewarding:
The river was shallow. We went further and further out until our hearts and our souls were completely submerged and only our eyes and lips were left above water. We held each other for minutes or hours or days, until her left leg buckled beneath her and we both lost our balance and went under. The muddy water was thick and tasted like the bottom of a mop bucket and she closed her eyes and I kissed her on both eyelids and asked her to marry me.
I have to conclude that the title is intended to be taken with a grain of salt. In spite of situations, people and environments throughout the collection that are conspirators in the murder of happiness, the narrators know they are better than what surrounds them, that it is easy to get caught up in misery and takes real strength of character to rise above it. It also takes a talent for language and storytelling to bring it home for the reader and make it meaningful. The author shows that he is capable of that, and then some; this reader is interested to watch the development of a talented writer, and eagerly awaits his next book.