There’s a story in Justin Taylor’s new collection, Flings, that blew me away. It’s about two young people engaged to be married. They’re a bit drunk, and they decide to play a truth-telling game. There’s a hint that the game will go horribly awry, and that the two people will end up irrevocably hurting each other—an update of the George-and-Martha story from the world of Edward Albee. But something different happens.
The woman discloses that she once cheated with the man’s close friend—months ago. We expect that the man will become enraged. Instead, he confesses that he knew already, and that he has always secretly wanted to hook up with this male friend. The desire has been a major burden on his heart. And then we expect that the woman might get freaked out. But instead she is moved by her partner’s confession.
The two choose to have an awkward threesome with a young male stranger, who mostly watches. A kind of happiness is attained. The young woman confides to the reader that she sometimes wonders if this is what a marriage is really supposed to be. And then she asks herself: Who cares?
Flings is full of this kind of wisdom. There is a Buddhist belief: You never know what will happen next. The present moment has infinite possibilities. Taylor knows this to be true. He watches from Olympian heights, with amused detachment, as his characters surprise themselves and one another.
In a nod to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a group of friends bounce off one another like ping-pong balls. One, who “hates the world” decides to try heroin. (What an arresting phrase—hating the world. There’s plenty to hate about life here on Earth. And thank God that Taylor, despite his uncanny intelligence and depth of perception, has found reasons to like life.) Anyway, the heroin woman confides to just one of her friends that she is planning to inject.
While she’s doing the deed, yet another friend has a sudden major life crisis: Her partner unexpectedly leaves her. All the friends band together—except, of course, heroin friend, who is basically on another planet. What can secret-keeping friend do? And what would happen if other friends learned that heroin woman had chosen to do the deed without confiding in them (despite having chosen to confide in one person, and thereby express a kind of preference for that person over all other people)? The story ends with a character bouncing alone in the middle of the ocean, as we all bounce, in our own private oceans, most of the time.
Life stuns and moves many other characters. A young man who thinks he has things basically figured out suddenly discovers that his dog is whelping nine pups—all that unexpected, mewling, slimy striving! An old lady who is struggling to find reasons to exist discovers a Florida gator in her backyard and later, lonely, finds herself dropping supermarket meat into the canal, so that the gator might return. An anxious man consoles himself with the sight of many starlings, dropping and rising, dropping and rising.
A woman texts her much-older partner whom, she knows, is away for the night with his kids: “I’m naked and tipsy. Come on over.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Seconds later, she texts again: “I meant that message for the girls. We’re having a night out.” Is she telling the truth? Will the older man ever know?
A guy named Gregory stays afloat by reading Zizek. Eventually, he chooses to move to a cabin in the woods and re-teach high-school pre-calculus to himself—so he really understands it this time.
Do you see why these characters have stayed in my mind? They’re original. They seem fully formed. And their creator clearly has a rare gift. He is wonderfully curious about people entirely different from himself, including the very old and the very young.
Also, Taylor has a spiritual depth that has earned his work comparisons to the stories of Raymond Carver. Like Carver, Taylor fully embraces the fact that life is terrifying. Like Carver, Taylor has his characters behave in ways that they themselves don’t understand. For example, one memorable young man is so disgusted by his homosexual yearning that his fists take on a life of their own, and they begin to beat up the object of the young man’s affections.
I’m so pleased to have chosen this book. Murder mysteries excite me, but when I review them, I sometimes find I have little to say. For example, when I reviewed Becky Masterman’s easy-breezy Rage Against the Dying, I found myself struggling to come up with juicy things to say. By contrast, Taylor’s stories take more effort, but they reward you with genuine information and artistry. A wealth of disturbing knowledge awaits you, here.
One more observation. There’s a man in a story called “Saint Wade”. He has become involved with a younger woman who can’t always find time to take care of her own little daughter. And so the man offers to help. The man likes the daughter a good deal. Her mother, though, begins to sort of take advantage of him. She calls him “Saint Wade”, which is kind of offensive. (Whenever we call a person a “saint,” we are really saying, “I need you to conform to my superficial impression of you. I don’t have the time or interest to view you, really, as a full, complex, flawed person.) Wade feels pressured to stay in the woman’s life because of the ties he has formed with her daughter. He is ambivalent about a “romantic love” that he’s not sure he really feels.
Who among us hasn’t been in a situation at least slightly similar to this? And what a great gift to read it, spelled out so clearly and compassionately, in the pages of a hardcover book.
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