Earlier this year, I talked with Justin Taylor–not about his then-forthcoming collection Flings (which was released on Tuesday), but about his work as editor of the journal The Agriculture Reader. He spoke about his editorial work there as freeing, and about how it affected the kind of work that he writes. At BookCourt earlier this week, Taylor read from his new collection–specifically, the story “Sungold,” one of the funniest stories he’s written, and also one abounding with musings on academics, the immigrant experience, flawed employer-employee relationships, and college-town businesses. In some ways, it reads like the flipside of his novel The Gospel of Anarchy: both are set in Southeastern college town, but the novel’s characters are pursuing higher, deeper truths; the narrator of “Sungold” is primarily concerned with skimming money from his boss and demonstrating a fondness for borrowed metaphors. (“I talk so much less dumb than I live,” he notes at one point.)
One thing the two share, however, is a adeptness with music. There’s a discussion of Royal Trux in the dialogue; much as how the philosophically-oriented punks of The Gospel of Anarchy were knee-deep in the Gainesville punk scene, “Sungold”‘s narrator has a kind of patchwork music collection, some of it accumulated via exes; some of his knowledge gleaned through unorthodox means. Which, honestly, I can relate to: not everyone was ushered into brilliant rock music via an organized, almost Masonic process–that hit-or-miss approach mirrors how a fair amount of people I knew stumbled onto what would eventually become their music of choice.
It should also be mentioned in here that, if Taylor’s previous work was literature that nodded in the direction of punk rock, this heads into a very different territory. In an interview for Time Out New York, Taylor half-jokingly told Tiffany Gilbert that his work “has the highest number, per capita, of Grateful Dead references in American literature.” There’s also a story in which a middle-aged man takes his grown children to see a Phish show, and it’s one of the collection’s more moving moments.
I’m now wondering if the abundance of more freeform music referenced in the text has also had a kind of structural effect in this book. There’s a lot to take in here: stories about groups of friends fragmenting and evolving over the years; unlikely epiphanies; ventures into unexpected corners of history–the Jewish community in Hong Kong, for example. These are characters that surprised me when reading the book: the ways in which they come together, the ways in which they evolve, the ways in which they hold true to principles or abandon them or jettison elements of their life because of them. That blend of groundedness and unpredictability ultimately creates a fantastic sense of the unexpected in Flings.