Nothing or Next to Nothing

By Barry Graham

Main Street Rag
August 2011
152 pages


Reviewed by Paula Bomer


"Dirty deeds, do anything you want me to, done dirt cheap
Dirty deeds, dirty deeds, dirty deeds, done dirt cheap"—AC/DC


Barry Graham derives the title of his novella, Nothing or Next to Nothing, from a Walt Whitman poem, and it aptly hints toward one of the permeating themes of this novella, that of nihilism. And although Graham establishes himself very firmly in the camp of transgressive literature, there is also a sort of unintentional irony to the title. Because Graham tells the story of Derek Kehoe through a monument of details, of things, of the opposite of nothing, an accumulation of junk food, snot, blood, weed and acid and cheap beer, tits and smelly underwear. And yet, the distance with which these details accumulate, the rawness, the ugliness of them, seems to question the value of all the things listed and described, the goodness of it all.

The storyline revolves around Derek Kehoe's desperate life: his beloved mother dies young, leaving him to the care of an older and also beloved sister, Daisy, with whom his incestuous relationship is one of need and tenderness, but it is also emblematic of the sorrow and lostness of their lives. With little to help them, they fall into a life of scrounging for money, barely living off of social security. Eventually Derek leaves high school to work full time at McDonalds. Throughout this time, he's involved with a family of women, a mother, daughter and cousin, and their sexual encounters are described in lurid detail. Other sexual encounters ensue as well, told in the darkest of terms. An emotional connection exists with some of these women, but it's piled under all the problems, symbolized by Graham's relentless, Adderal attention to detail:

There were blue globs of Crest covering the inside of the sink. I touched one. It was hard and still smelled minty. The soap dish was empty and her toothbrush was on the floor next to the bathtub. There were long black hairs all over the counter and all over the floor and a few stuck inside the globs of toothpaste. I took a good shit but couldn't find any toilet paper. I flushed, then reached down between my legs and cupped some clean water and splashed it up into my asshole then rubbed it with my hands and dried it off with a dirty sock I pulled from the top of her clothes hamper.

Eventually, Derek goes to college so that Daisy can continue to collect social security, but she also mysteriously leaves him. His college courses, as well as Daisy's incredible reading habit, show two intelligent people caught in a world not entirely of their own making. If given different economic circumstances, these two would live much easier lives.

Graham's book reads very much like a challenge. How much can you, the reader, take? The world in which his characters live is undoubtedly very realistic, but Graham seems to focus on the shocking. And why not? Isn't that what the Beats did, Henry Miller before them, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker, Charles Bukowski, just to name a few? One of the more ambitious aspects of this novella is the juxtaposition of Derek and Daisy's intelligence with the squalor of their lives, the narrow proscriptions of their possibilities. Here is Derek, finely discussing his understanding of history:

History made sense to me, not because you need to learn where you came from in order to know where you're going, or because you must learn from your past mistakes or you'll be destined to repeat them, or even because it helps explain why things are the way they are, none of that cliché bullshit. History makes sense to me because once something's done it's done and there ain't a fucking thing anyone can do but talk about it. Things happen, then it's history, then everyone forgets and it becomes nothing.

Whether you agree with Derek or not, he's a thinking man, a thinking man numbing his pain and disconnect with the world with drugs, doing the best he can to provide for himself and his loved ones and offering us a bird's eye view of some difficult circumstances, not all of which are beyond his control. What will happen to Derek? What happens to his sister, the biggest thing at the center of his heart? It's very much worth reading the minutia of vileness, indeed, important and relevant to do so, to find out.