An ex-Portlander converts reality TV into fast-flying fiction

Erik Barmack watches reality television 'religiously.'

His first novel, 'The Virgin,' hitting the shelves this week, tells the tale of Joseph Erin Braun, an 'unemployed scrub' who decides he can achieve a kind of happiness, or at least significance, by getting on a reality TV show.

He picks 'The Virgin,' a multiweek creepfest in which 26 men will compete to squire a 26-year-old blond, beautiful virgin called Madison. Braun and his friend Allison concoct a persona designed to appeal both to TV producers and to the girl-woman herself.

The book has that new-fiction smell. Its originality is eerie, since this is the first novel about reality TV written by the target demographic. Barmack, a 31-year-old Portland native who now lives in cozy Park Slope, in Brooklyn, N.Y., is often spot-on in his observations.

'I was watching a reality show,' Barmack says, 'and this guy was being grilled, and he said, 'That's not me, that's the character!' '

That sparked the writing of the fast-paced and entertaining book: 'It led to an examination of whether people create public identities. For the first time, people are becoming public figures without having done something talented; they just have faith in their own image.'

Braun renames himself Jeb Brown and becomes (like a lot of male protagonists in first novels) a sweating mess of paranoia and self-loathing. Allison is scrawny and oddly dressed, with an attitude.

'I wanted the reality TV stuff to seem fake and unreal in contrast to the other people's exchanges,' Barmack says. Abundant dialogue keeps the story flying along, a technique Barmack learned from Brett Easton Ellis.

Barmack talks about an anti-'1984' effect: 'As recent as 10 years ago, if the camera was on you all the time it was invasive. Now it's almost flipped; people like Paris Hilton want the camera on them all the time.'

The author works in business strategies for Portland Trail Blazer owner Paul Allen's Sporting News, creating online sports games and cell-phone applications. His next book, which he describes as a sort of 'Sex and the City' for men, is a collaboration based on a bunch of guys who play fantasy football together.

'The Virgin' is dedicated to Pru Twohy, Barmack's English teacher at Catlin Gabel School, who he says took many 'ne'er-do-wells and encouraged us to keep journals and write and got dozens of people turned on to literature.'

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