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Book Review: Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever: Stories by Justin Taylor

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Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor is a young author’s nearly perfect collection of short stories. Taylor writes about the youth of America who have been sidelined by society, with a captivating and paradoxical combination of the rawness of a first work and the gleaming polish of a natural wordsmith.

Youth, religion, and rebellion are some of the themes tackled with a keen eye in Everything Here. Taylor’s protagonists are the losers whom gentile society often turns away from in embarrassment. But with beautiful literary skill, he makes us reexamine these lives that too often seem lost, and recognize the humanity, the striving, the sadness and the quiet hope that exists in rural and counterculture America.

If there is anything still taboo in this world, Taylor covers it in his at times embarrassingly frank stories. There is a sadness that often comes along with the shock, as in “In My Heart I Am Already Gone,” which ends with the narrator’s aunt catching him in the act of sniffing his young cousin’s panties after killing their cat per his uncle’s requests. But is Taylor just writing incestuous lechery, or is he legitimately questioning the way we are trapped by social mores. Taylor’s illicitness is not mundane, but neither is it malevolent. You cannot always relate to it, but it is so honest that you try.

Along with taboo subjects, Taylor knows how to write so that the reader responds viscerally. In “New Life,” a lovesick young boy blackmails a high school girl’s obsequious best friend in order to win the right to bind himself to the girl, his first love, by letting the friend slice him open and spill his blood in a magic ceremony that is meant to keep the girl close to them both, but that instead goes tragically awry.

Jewishness is a theme in several of his stories, and it serves as a means for exploring issues of religion and group identification in general. Sometimes, as in the arguments between a devoutly Jewish father and a more skeptical son in “Tennessee,” Taylor forgoes subtlety in favor of making a point. This is also evident in “The Jealousy of Angels,” when Satan explains to a young man who has just had his girlfriend stolen by an angel and with whom he has been watching television, “They keep your days filled with the piddling shit so you don’t have the time or the heart to go after the big stuff.” But it is hard to fault Taylor for wanting to say something definitive, especially when so much of his writing is ambiguous.

There are several recurring characters in Everything Here, one of which is the young anarchist David, who appears in a couple stories with other young members of his rebel band. Through David’s eyes, Taylor explores the nihilism of youth that is really just a quest for that one thing that does matter, and fear about needing anything in this unjust world. The reader learns that Taylor’s anarchists are just kids; kids who are capable of sharing moments of adult tenderness. However, while David strikes the reader as sympathetic in the first story of nascent love, he develops a disturbing thirst for violence that climaxes in his biting his lover in the second story. This change seems to speak of a disheartening loss of innocence among those who had little purity to lose.

Stylistically, Everything Here shines. Taylor has a style of prose that at times reads like poetry; poetry filled with raw, uncensored emotions. Taylor does write all of his stories with a similar voice, suggesting that even if the names of his protagonists change, their thoughts are his own. One might see this as a sign of literary juvenileness, but I think it lends the collection a coherence that is appealing.

In “Tetris,” Taylor creates beautiful imagery by subtly comparing the video game Tetris with Hiroshima, as if that imaginary environment and our real world were both designed to be destroyed. In “Whistle Through Your Teeth and Spit,” a story about the final days of an alternative coffee house that is being turned into a family-friendly restaurant and the outcasts who frequent it, Taylor’s protagonist muses that “the future is whatever you submit to.” Perhaps his deadbeat characters are a warning against this kind of cowardice, a sign of what happens if you miss your opportunity to fight against life. Or maybe he is more kind to them than that, as though they are symbols of the true difficulty of dealing with the cards we are dealt. If our lives are not flooded with bright lights, maybe we just accept scrounging on our hands and knees for rhinestones in the dark, and somehow make that slight shimmer enough light to sustain us.

Taylor’s stories end without answers. It is as if he is saying that the next move does not matter to who his characters are. It is about the people, and he allows a snippet of plot to capture some essential quality of the human condition. Taylor humanizes the losers of society, making his readers care about the kinds of people they never knew before. And isn’t this the best work an artist can do?

There is a bittersweet quality to all of Taylor’s characters as the reader internalizes their struggles to get through a life not of their choosing. Not all of his characters are sympathetic, as with a young man who beats up his illicit lover or in allusions to soldiers at Abu Ghraib. At times, the reader is left craving sweetness and innocence, and maybe Taylor is reminding us that this is exactly what is missing from his characters’ lives, and they may search for it but never know where to find it. Most of his tales end with a loss of faith and a destruction of sacredness, but yet the characters are still left with a desire to find a reason to believe in each other.

Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever is not one of those books that leave the reader feeling astonished at life and joyful to be a part of the human race. But it does leave you amazed at the power of Taylor’s art and his ability to capture the heartbreak and hope for redemption that is the essential undercurrent of life.

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About Kerri Shadid