Reading Justin Taylor’s new short story collection, Flings, is like reading two books, one by a good literary fiction writer, the other by a great writer who makes you forget about genre and media altogether. The first book is just good enough, it almost doesn’t matter that most characters couldn’t exist outside a constructed literary fiction netherworld. Then you read the other one and realize what the collection could have been.
Taylor’s prose flows effortlessly and beautifully throughout Flings. Yet, one gets the sense, in the lesser stories at least, that characterizations and themes serve as mere scaffolding for literary fireworks. The words, impressive as they are, often obscure deeper meaning.
But three stories, and part of a fourth, are several orders of magnitude better than the rest. In “Sungold,” Poets,” and “Carol, Alone” (as well as a few passages from “Saint Wade”), Taylor finds subjects worthy of his talent. Rather than being tethered to lazy genre trappings, plot unfolds according to its own logic. Characters seem to speak in their own native language, and settings feel real and inhabited rather than cardboard cutouts that fall apart as soon as the action concludes.
In “Sungold,” a nameless twentysomething waiter works at a dive bar and restaurant. He tells much of his story from inside a huge promotional foam-rubber mushroom costume, which he wears on the side of the road to lure in customers. His life is simple. He gets high, steals cash from the till (which his burnout boss allows as a sort of job perk), and chases what he calls “Melissa/Jessicas,” a series of interchangeable waitresses. Then a Russian girl named Polina Sungold gets hired and upsets his fragile ecosystem.
“Poets” follows an MFA student, Abigail, through a relationship with another poet, Cal. She’s too good for him, both artistically and as a mate, and when he breaks up with her, it feels like a nudge from the universe, one she answers by honing her craft. The story describes poetry as a discipline that requires more than a lived persona, but an actual life. Abigail doesn’t so much learn this lesson as grow into it.
In “Carol, Alone,” an elderly woman tries to figure out how to live on her own after the death of her husband. Her life is not as solitary as the title suggests. Rather, it’s resigned to life on more immediate terms. Her time can no longer be measured in years, or milestones in relationships, but small moments—a strong cup of coffee in the morning, a weekly dinner with her son’s family. She feels hopeless but also understands the futility of that hopelessness.
All of these stories are painted with beautiful words, but some of Taylor’s characters read like people known for years, while others like literary robots, progressing through the motions with a certain performative gravity and inevitability. Of course the middle-aged protagonist of “Mike’s Song” almost gets in a fatal traffic accident on his way home from attending a Phish concert with his grown kids. And of course Zachary proposes to Lacey at the site of the burial of Stonewall Jackson’s arm in “A Talking Cure.” That’s what makes sense in their world of easy symbols and thoroughly modern themes. But Abigail and Carol are characters without agendas. They don’t telegraph easy human interest. They’re compelling in the way people are, not the way characters are.
It’s ironic that the three good stories in Flings are so good, one feels cheated by the others. But having seen the collection of stories that could have been, it’s hard to be happy with the one that is.