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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

When you’re young, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever

click to enlarge Everything here is the best thing ever
  • Everything here is the best thing ever

“I began to believe that we were the secret owners of the world and everything in it,” says the Floridian narrator of Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever’s first story. He happily lists the properties that belong in his world. “Our shitty rental home; that one bar on Tenth that we liked; the whole state from the Alabama border over to St. Augustine, down past the Rat Kingdom all the way to Hemingway House and the beaches from which you can practically spit on Cuba.” Those are narrow borders for the world, but they’re carefully tailored to the character. By the story’s end in just a flash of a few pages, you’re left with the same disappointing realization that’s lingering unspoken in the narrator’s gut — the world is much, much larger.

At 27, author Justin Taylor is young enough to be one of the wide-eyed characters populating his debut story collection, but Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever isn’t written with the blinders of youthful idealism. Taylor clearly grasps the limitations and failings of adolescent thinking. His characters are meticulously developed but artfully flawed twentysomethings. They argue authoritatively about music history and quote verbatim from their favorite books while hopelessly watching their own lives spiral out of control.

Taylor might be best known for his contributions to HTMLGiant, a literary blog edited by Atlanta’s Blake Butler and written by a number of young authors around the country. They’ve cultivated a fervent community while championing small-press books and occasionally worshipping at the altar of stylish icons like Gordon Lish or Dennis Cooper.

To his credit, Taylor’s stories are stylistically more conservative than his peers. He doesn’t bother mimicking Beckett’s formal experiments or gutting his sentences into imitations of Diane Williams’ skeletal prose, though both authors have clearly informed his work. Instead, Everything Here wisely focuses on Taylor’s strengths — setting vivid, realistic scenes and putting fleshed out characters in those scenes to fuck up.

“Tennessee’s” narrator is insightful when it comes to thoughts about the state he’s visiting, “luscious country, all rises and slopes and green, with a few half-finished planned communities and strip malls, but still. It was mild, as blight goes – enough to make you worry about the future, but somehow not enough to wreck such a sweet summer day.” He’s less clear about his own future, though, borrowing money from his mother, arguing with his father, and failing to inspire the younger brother he’s been instructed to help. Rather than understand his shortcomings, the narrator casually beds the his younger brother’s crush, pausing only for a moment of “good Jewish guilt.”

The stories are best when Taylor allows himself enough space to let characters materialize throughout the story. “Tetris,” a short scene about a guy playing video games as his girlfriend sleeps and the world ends around him, feels flat. It would benefit from some of the breathing room found in Taylor’s other stories. Occasionally, attempts at topical reference (“after moving to the city he discovered the then-burgeoning freak-folk scene”) come across as awkward summary, and fail to develop characters or scenes.

Mostly, though, Taylor’s cultural references shine like constellations, groups of stars that provide a guiding orientation to the characters. Lyrics from the seminal punk band Fifteen provide a nice backdrop for a group of muddy anarchists. Quotes from Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye and the Pixies are an interesting cocktail for the psychology of a sadistic deli employee. Graffiti scrawled on walls and sidewalks lingers like lasting images of personal epiphany. While characters try to surround themselves with these symbols of youthful enthusiasm, the book’s central irony is refusing to reinforce that enthusiasm. Taylor’s stories often end with a reversal of innocence, a discovery that everything here might not be the best thing ever.

Justin Taylor reads at A Cappella Books/Opal Gallery today, Wed., April 28 at 7 p.m.

Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor. Harper Perennial. $13.99. 185 pp.

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