“Class of 2000, that’s us,” says a character in Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, the debut collection of short fiction from Brooklyn’s Justin Taylor. “They raised us to worship our own greatness, to believe ourselves touched by fortune. Destiny, whatever. They put their faith in the calendar’s promise, that glistening fake-out, and we came of age in time to vote but it turned out to be the one when votes stopped counting, if they ever did.”
There are most likely a great many things separating Taylor from this character—I wouldn’t dare presume the author is similarly obsessed with the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, or engaged in an S&M affair with another man’s girlfriend, or employed by Subway—but it’s not a coincidence that the two men are part of the same grad class. That’s because at 27, Taylor possesses a worldview that is unmistakably (and inevitably described as) youthful—though in his case that isn’t an insult. In fact, the stories in Everything Here are loaded with qualities that are everywhere you look in today’s under-30 set, and which are coveted and puzzled over in equal measure by marketers, baby boomers, and the mass media alike: emotional urgency, tangled-to-the-point-of-inscrutable hipness, fluid conceptions of sexuality, and a crippling, unspoken fear of isolation.
These are characters who suffer from chronic nostalgia. They’re bright and disillusioned, but not quite ready to give up.
The best stories in the lot convey all of the above and more. In “Tetris,” a man is too busy playing Nintendo and sulking over a spat with his girlfriend to wake her up in time to see the apocalypse happening outside their window; he prefers the oblivion of the backlit screen, which is rapidly filling up with its own “candy-colored snow.” Here and elsewhere, Taylor deftly captures the peculiar rhythms of the American vernacular, and while his prose is spare and sometimes evasive, it always carries vast hidden reserves of empathy.
“In My Heart I Am Already Gone” is the most dazzling piece of all. On the surface it’s a story of a lonely twentysomething who’s enlisted by his uncle to discreetly drown the family cat, Buckles, but the periphery is bursting with equally compelling ideas: the narrator’s uneasy slide into adulthood, his dissatisfied but forgiving girlfriend, and his more-than-healthy interest in his 15-year-old cousin’s underwear drawer. It’s a stunner—and, at a mere 11 pages, a paragon of economy.
The collection’s only major flaw is that Taylor can sometimes get too hung up on his narrative gimmicks, which tend to obscure the stories’ larger missions. I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit, for example, the story about the angels and God locked in contract renewal negotiations, even after Satan shows up with a six-pack of beer. (“Tetris” approaches this pitfall, too, but smartly cuts off after a few pages.)
Over the course of these 15 tales, a few choice subjects keep recurring: DIY anarchists, pockets of Jewish-American exiles, covert sexual affairs, and the music of the Pixies and the Grateful Dead. Even the phrase that gives the collection its title pokes its head up more than once. The way these references align themselves in Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, weaving in and out like notes in a blue-collar symphony, is a lot of fun to watch unfold. It’ll be equally exciting to see what form they take in whatever Taylor produces next.
Harper Perennial, 208 pp, $15.99, paperback
(review also appeared in SEE Magazine, March 4, 2010)