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Deflower Power 

Debut novel mines the depths of reality TV

Thursday, Jan 13 2005

Joseph Braun is your average red-blooded American man: He craves fame, respect and true love. And he’ll do anything to get them, even if it means creating a false identity and humiliating himself on reality TV. Joe styles himself as Jeb, a brooding but honorable guy, in order to get on a new series called The Virgin, in which contestants have a chance to deflower an enigmatic woman named Madison. The show’s sleazy premise is entirely plausible, especially in light of Who’s Your Daddy, Fox’s recent reality special featuring an adopted woman who got a chance to guess which contestant was her birth father (and win $100,000).

Barmack nails the intricacies of the reality dating show conventions, from the OTF ("on the fly") confessionals the producers extract from the men to the excruciating interpersonal dynamics among the bachelors. ("We’re trying to act normal, but none of our conversations have any pace, and so when the Fat Guy cracks a joke that ends, ‘Oh baby, that’s what I’m talking about,’ we all chuckle.") The novel’s most amusing gimmick is Barmack’s parody of a fan Web site (à la Televisionwithoutpity.com) that offers sarcastic episode summaries while mercilessly mocking the participants — especially Jeb, who exudes all the negative charisma of a nervous, sweaty weasel.

Unfortunately, The Virgin can’t resist hamming up the narration, constantly spelling out Joe/Jeb’s self-professed flaws in slick prose. And following reality TV’s own penchant for surprises, the novel churns out a number of spurious plot twists. That includes a Virgin who has her own problems, the most minor of which is that she’s run out of money while trying to finish a dissertation on the Salem witch trials. In the end, The Virgin suffers the fate of the shows it sends up: entertaining but disposable.

THE VIRGIN | By ERIK BARMACK | St. Martin’s Griffin, 244 pages | $12.95 paperback

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