“Look, I’m a bit dishonest. Or, at least nothing I’ve presented so far has been entirely truthful.” From the start, Joseph Braun hides nothing from readers in Erik Barmack’s 2005 novel from St. Martin’s Griffin press.
Braun - or Jeb Brown, as he portrays himself - has one goal: to gain a spot on an upcoming reality TV show called “The Virgin.” Braun will face off against 19 other men for a chance to take a young woman’s virginity. In this case, “The Virgin” is a 26-year-old woman named Madison.
Besides Braun/Brown, there is Nova, Greg, Cody, Fat Jack and the football player, a man whom everyone refers to as “Favre.” Each of the final men fits neatly into stereotypical roles that often show up in reality television programming. Nova is the cocky extrovert; Cody, the young, sensitive one who writes and recites poetry to Madison; Favre, who fills the role of the shirtless (and sometimes brainless) one; Fat Jack, who doesn’t seem to care one way or the other; Shep, the cowboy who goes nowhere without his Stetson. And, of course, there is Jeb, who may be the hardest to figure out despite his honesty in saying that he wants to get on the show in order to trick everyone. In the end, Jeb ends up as one of the more hated characters. But does he learn from the experience?
In addition to the contestants, there are two fans through whose eyes the reader gets to see each episode – Lisa and another fan, whose name we never learn. The production crew are silent throughout, except for executive producers Andrea Trinh and Andrew Weinberg. Andrea manipulates contestants into characters and personality quirks and interactions into storylines, goading them from time to time, while Andrew stays in the background, coming out after a time to intimidate each of the six men when necessary.
Another mystery in the pages is Mitchell, Madison’s pen pal. Through each new chapter, Madison opens up in letters to Mitchell, in some cases begging for forgiveness, in others saying she won’t ask again and will move on. Always Madison refers to his responses, which readers do not get to see.
The element of mystery surrounding these four propels the story along. In the opening pages and chapters, Barmack’s novel has the feeling of a person trying desperately to find out who they are. By chapter 28, Braun/Brown’s character begins to grow as he realizes that none of the contestants is exactly right for Madison, as they all have their own motives for being part of the show.
Every contestant has his role to play; each has his own secrets. The ending to The Virgin, while predictable in one sense, is a shocker in another.
Any fan of “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” or other such reality program could lose themselves easily in this book. Erik Barmack’s debut novel, a satirical dig at pop culture, deserves five stars.