Flings by Justin Taylor
HarperCollins, 2014*; 240 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
Justin Taylor comes from a deep bench of voice-driven white dudes that are in the process of growing up before us on the page (see: Adam Wilson, Sam Lipsyte, Gary Shteyngart, Joshua Ferris, etc). These writers are exciting because we get to see them either come into their potential, or, as sometimes happens, not pan out at all. Lately, I’ve been struck by the fact that I don’t see this trend nearly as often among women or minorities (probably because we as a general public ask our women and minorities to be fully mature before we find them “worth listening to”), which is a shame, because there’s a great deal of pleasure to be found in following a career trajectory like Taylor’s, whose output has been spotty, but more often compelling than not.
His first collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, showed a great deal of promise. “What Was Once All Yours,” in particular, is a story that I go back to again and again, as it pretty masterfully brings the backgrounded heartbreak in its character’s lives into the foreground. His follow-up debut novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, was disappointing, both because of the masturbatory nature of it and because of the overall air of ironic distance that the book had toward its subject matter. I was primed to love it, as I’d spent my youth listening to Gainesville punk rock and occasionally hanging out in anarchist flop houses, but it read like it was written by someone who was embarrassed that they wanted to celebrate that culture but was throwing the party anyway.
Now we have a new short story collection, Flings¸ which finds Taylor settling into a groove in the vein of Carver or Barry Hannah (“A Talking Cure” takes inspiration from Hannah’s “Water Liars,” and there are winks and nods all over the place), or at least, he’s found the groove of a contemporary take on those writers, who have been absorbed into a more highbrow conversation over the course of decades of MFA classes between then and now. Taylor is writing about burnouts and losers, sure, as in the story of an assistant manager of a pizza place who is forced to wear the giant phallic mushroom costume, but he’s also writing about the overly-educated, adrift Millennials who have put on the aesthetic and politics of Carver characters, even as the socio-economic realities don’t quite line up. Two stories in the collection revolve around grad students, and one of them is the dreaded “what happens at AWP stays at AWP but is also so full of meaning” story (wrongly dreaded in this case, as the story is quite lovely).
Several of the stories, “Flings” among them, take on a mosaic, almost ping-pongey feel, as a group of characters move through a section of their lives, trading narrative focus like they’re in a Linklater film; “A Night Out” was probably the most successful of these for me, but each of them manages to capture how lonely and aimless it is, being young. The writing in each story crackles with energy and a kind of understated inevitability to it all, particularly in their endings, like this one: “She was a beautiful woman in a smart dress and dark stockings. The world itself seemed to barely know what to do with her. She had no old friends.”
That’s not to say that all the stories work; at times they get caught up in a kind of aimlessness that makes them feel devoid of momentum or danger, even when dangerous things are happening, and occasionally Taylor doesn’t seem to have found his way past the ironic distance that’s the default setting for his generation and into loving his characters (and by proxy his audience). These aren’t new problems in my reading of Taylor over the years, and it’s certainly lessened as he’s come into his own as a writer, but it’s still a barrier. I want him to give his characters the kind of empathetic and deeply human portrayals that he gives to the narrators of “Adon Olan” and “Carol, Alone,” but sometimes he seems more interested in being smart or cool. And that’s a shame, because when he hits his mark, he’s one of the strongest writers we have.
*This review is based on a pre-release ebook version of Flings