Tuesday, February 9, 2010

NEW BOOK! Review: Grand subtropical poverty


Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, published today, is the first collection of stories from twenty-six-year-old writer Justin Taylor, and it’s what you’d expect from a writer of his generation. Most of the stories are concerned with family members and relationships, alcohol and drug abuse, breaking away from the norm and yet trying to find roots somewhere. None of the pieces in this collection feel big, nor do any of them truly stand out, but most make for interesting reading.

Like Flannery O’Connor in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Taylor here opts to create his titles after found words on sidewalks, graffiti artists’ tags, random throwaway lines that would have otherwise gotten lost in the shuffle. The eponymous phrase ‘everything is the best thing ever’ is spray-painted and ‘nobody from the city ever came to clean it up’. ‘Estrellas y Rascacielos’ is a line from a song in that story. And like O’Connor, Taylor is interested in storytelling mainly of the South, of Jews in the South, and occasionally of characters feeling a bit displaced in New York City.
In ‘In My Heart I’m Already Gone’, the second story in this collection, and one that almost mimics a Joyce-like epiphany moment, the narrator has found a father figure in his Uncle Danny who one day asks him to kill family’s cat. The narrator is sick of being in town, has always dreamed that he is better than what he’s become, and believes he is embodying the concept of the title: ‘though in my heart I am already gone, am calling my mother on her birthday or sending a Christmas gift to Vicky, I don’t know where I’ll go or how I’ll get there.’
Although the plan to kill the cat works, somewhat vicious in its description and coldness, the unfortunate doesn’t end there. Going into his cousin Vicky’s room, in an Ian McEwan-like bizarreness of sexuality, he commences smelling her underwear, which stimulates the imagination: ‘if she were standing in front of a boy, as Sara stood in front of me last night, he would fall to his knees in worship–how could he not?–and maybe Vicky will not miss just a single pair…’ But the problem is that he gets caught by Vicky’s mother, his aunt, as he’s sniffing the absent crotch.
‘Finding Myself’, the shortest story in this collection, almost feels like a paean to why Taylor has decided to write, his own tiny manifesto:

I find myself in places I don’t expect me, such as outside churches, lurking, peering in their dooryards, or inside my own hollow skull, living a life to which the term hardscrabble might be astutely or ironically applied. Luckily, there are no ironists or astuticians around to subject me to application. It’s just me in here–I’m not even wearing socks. . . . I am not a casual observer. Of the few things I do well, casualty is not one of them.

Overall, this d├ębut isn’t bad, and it’s somewhat impressive that someone as young as Taylor has been able to write and publish as much as he has. At the same time, there are few true challenges that seem to be set up by the author: there aren’t really any stylistic techniques that jolt the reader into attention, and sometimes the stories feel easy – especially when it comes to Jewish jokes or particular themes and settings. But then again his depiction of New York City, the Alphabet City in ‘Whistle Through Your Teeth and Spit’, seems wildly accurate while being wildly amusing. So it’s a collection that rides several borders. It’s like listening to someone reciting an anecdote at a bar. Sometimes you’re listening and laughing along; sometimes you just don’t feel like paying attention and nod to appease the storyteller; sometimes you can’t hear over the sound of the speaker system; sometimes you wonder how you got to that place to begin with.
Review galley generously provided by publisher.


Sasha said…

I'm quite excited to read this book (I have a review copy with me)–that title's the best thing ever. (Okay, that wasn't intended, I swear.)

Kari said…

I was excited by this when you mentioned both New York and the South. And then the author had to go and kill a cat! That will not do!

I loooove your concluding bar simile. Because yes, sometimes we all just nod.