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Zen Monk Offers Up Brutal Enlightenment in Bloody Little Gem of a Contemporary Noir

By Paul Goal Allen
Barnes&Noble.com
February 2012

“I was never afraid of him, but other people are. Yes, they still are. They’re afraid of a dead man. They think he’ll still come and get them if they don’t keep their mouths shut.”
 – The Wrong Thing by Barry Graham

My motivation for picking up and reading books varies from title to title—generally it’s because I’m already familiar with the author or series, oftentimes the interest is based on a particularly positive review or suggestion, and sometimes it’s something as simple as intriguing cover art. None of these, however, are why I was compelled to seek out and read Barry Graham’s The Wrong Thing—it’s because of Barry Graham himself.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Graham is a Zen monk who, according to his website, serves as the Abbot of The Sitting Frog Zen Center in Phoenix— and he also writes brutal, soul-wrenching crime fiction.

The Wrong Thing was a bloody little gem of a contemporary noir, revolving around a young Mexican-American drug dealer known as the Kid. Raised in a low-income neighborhood of Santa Fe by unloving parents, the Kid’s savage childhood—stabbing a bully in the face with a pen, slicing open a dishonest drug dealer’s face, etc.—has become almost mythologized, like a modern-day Mexican-American version of Billy the Kid. He has become “a legend created in the barrio, a phantom who was blamed for every unsolved act of violence by a Mexican.”

Fueled by unhealthy doses of existential angst, sex and violence, a particularly remarkable element of The Wrong Thing is in the way in which it is told. The narrator is a junkie who only met the Kid once, just moments before his death:

“This is what they are saying about him, what some people are saying about him. And it may be true. Or it may be lies. Just like the story I am about to tell you. It may be a lie, it may be the truth, or it may be both. Nobody knows. The only one who knows is him, and he can’t speak anymore. And I can’t speak for him; I don’t know what he would say. I can only speak of him, tell another version of the story.”

What transpires is a retelling of the Kid's short existence—fleeting moments of transcendence in a life filled with darkness and more than a few missteps.

The Wrong Thing was one of those rare reads that stays with you, like shadows lingering in your subconscious. Although this was a relatively quick read (only 128 pages), it explores a diversity of weighty subject matter—classism, racism, the death penalty, the power (or lack thereof) of love, etc.— and is deeply thought provoking. It's about someone who has lost his way in the world—a young man who is perceived as a monster who is still a scared little boy at heart—but, ultimately, it is about every one of us and our struggle to understand and heal ourselves.

A brutal blend of modern-day myth and crime fiction, The Wrong Thing is the right thing for adventurous readers looking for literary enlightenment.

“Then he was dead, and some people cried, but most didn’t. And the people with lawns and 401 (k) plans and straight white teeth felt safer now, because the Kid was gone.”
The Wrong Thing by Barry Graham
 
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. 

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