Justin Taylor, The Gospel of Anarchy

It’s not hard to see why David initially falls in with the punk-rock anarchists who live in his neighbourhood in northern Florida. He’s just dropped out of college, hates his call-centre job, and spends long stretches of time online, swapping and cultivating his collection of amateur pornography in a network of clandestine AOL chat rooms. (It’s the summer of 1999—the floodgates of filth have yet to be opened.)

So when he finds himself inside the punks’ flophouse, thanks to a chance encounter with a childhood friend, with two attractive women running their fingers through his hair as they all swig from a bottle of bourbon, you can all but hear David’s knees buckle. He literally can’t remember the last time he’s had physical contact with another person, and now he’s on the verge of a threesome the likes of which he’s only seen in .jpg format. It’s a no-brainer, even if David is slightly less interested in the punks’ desire to fuck the government than their desire to fuck each other.

But as its title suggests, The Gospel of Anarchy, the debut novel from Brooklyn’s Justin Taylor, does not reward casual observers. Anarchy tends to be one of those ideas you have to reshape your life around. Luckily, David is an enthusiastic convert here, too, raiding his old apartment for beer and whatever can be pawned, happily taking the punks’ philosophy to heart, and moving in with Katy and Liz, his new girlfriends.

This first handful of scenes moves at a quick clip, and Taylor lays his groundwork with impressive economy. His prose is lyrical and sharp, and has the added benefit of not forgetting to, you know, describe things along the way. Hidden conflicts within the flophouse are subtly planted, and the sleepy setting of Gainesville, where “[a]ll of the main roads… are named for the towns that they lead to,” is conjured with ease.

But the stakes get suddenly raised once again when Katy and another houseguest share a visceral, prophetic dream. It leads them into the backyard, where they dig up a haggard notebook left by a local hobo who used to camp out there. A montage or two later, and the punks, led by Katy, have formed a full-fledged religion around the diary—which has now been rechristened the “Book of Parker.”

This is, unfortunately, where the novel lost me. Taylor obviously intends the reader to be jarred by the house’s transformation into an almost accidental cult of personality (and David in particular into a wildly bearded true believer), but it’s an idea that needs to be presented carefully, gradually, to take similar hold in the reader. Since we never see David drink the Kool-Aid, we’re unable to stick with him after his conversion; the novel’s everyman is torn away from us, and there’s no small amount of separation anxiety left in his wake.

It’s all the more disorienting because, as far as I can tell, we’re actually meant to believe in the Book of Parker and its attendant disciples. Katy’s miracle dream is real; we experience it firsthand. Yet the novel’s second half spends more and more time with those punks who don’t feel the pull of religious awakening—the ones who shake their head and slowly back away. Given the two options, as well as the complete lack of persuasion as to the plausibility of a grubby notebook’s holiness, is it any surprise which group comes off as the more sympathetic?

Still, The Gospel of Anarchy has an undeniable energy and lucidity to it, even if those virtues lead it into some decidedly shaky territory. And it’s a clear step forward from Taylor’s first book, last year’s promising story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever.

Plus, as someone with an innate aversion to the punk philosophy, I mean it as high praise when I say that this novel could stand to be at least 100 pages longer. Despite my instincts, I came out actually wanting to like his assortment of pansexual rabble-rousers—wanting to get deeper into their heads, rather than sneering and fleeing the room, as is usually my wont.

Harper Perennial, 256 pp., $15.99, paperback

(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, March 17, 2011)

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