Harper Perennial,( 2010) 208 p.
Review by Tobias Carroll
Halfway through “Estrellas y Rascacielos,” the third story in Justin Taylor’s collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, there’s an exchange of dialogue that’s at once unexpected and critically important to what follows, both for that story and the rest of the book. The scene is a anarchists’ party at a punk house, where stolen beer is imbibed and ideologically inconsistent tomes sentenced to burn. In one corner, a conversation is taking place. Estrella — “the loudest anarchist of them all” — is telling David about a recent tattoo. He’s clearly taken with her, but when she talks about its location and her reasons for that, it suggests a sensibility so at odds with the chaos around them — a yearning for a life that could be called conservative — that it explodes a number of expectations the reader may have had. (You’ll note that I’m being vague on what exactly she says. That’s intentional: the reveal is best experienced firsthand.) This isn’t a case of Taylor knowingly pointing out the foibles of young punks and implying that they’ll leave this life entirely behind. Instead, he is at once sympathetic to the anarchists’ ideals and with Estrella’s reservations about her way of life. Taylor understands that the gulf between these two positions, each considered fairly, is the stuff of great drama.
Before we reach this story, we’ve already been taken through the temporally fragmented “Amber in the Window in Hurricane Season,” with a structure that recalls epigraph contributor Gary Lutz’s Cubist prose. We’ve also read “In My Heart I Am Already Gone,” an exploration of familial bonds and perceived responsibilities that slowly raises the discomfort level of both the reader and the story’s narrator. On their own, these two stories speak to Taylor’s skills at mood, at creating characters, at ratcheting up tension. But it’s “Estrellas y Rascacielos” that clarifies the thematic tension that dominates this collection.
The characters in these stories are trapped in debates that don’t have an easy answer. Estrella’s yearnings aren’t at all in keeping with her initial description as standard-bearer for a philosophy that inherently defies tradition. When we catch up with the anarchists in a later story, “Go Down Swinging,” it’s David’s turn to defy expectations, as he hearkens back to a childhood of Little League and a passion for baseball that’s never entirely left him. They’re stranded between poles, and from that stranding comes an unrest; from that unrest comes a conflict that may never be resolved.
That broken place between tradition and revolution manifests itself repeatedly throughout this collection. Religious faith occurs repeatedly: Judaism in “Tennessee,” Christianity in “What Was Once All Yours.” In the former, a father and son trade jabs about Israeli politics, each armed with an essay proving their point: the father’s from Alan Dershowitz, the son’s from Noam Chomsky. Across his collection, Taylor shows us families that fragmented long ago and families in the slow process of fragmentation. The same tensions — between the comforts of tradition and the need to define oneself apart from all that — manifest themselves again and again, and Taylor draws compelling, occasionally horrific drama from it at every turn.
The collection’s mood isn’t entirely unified, however. “The Jealousy of Angels,” while striking, has a tone that doesn’t neatly mesh with the stories around it. With its overly talkative angels, semi-divine visitations, and celestial technology, it reads like a Chris Adrian story, albeit one with a punchline. On its own, that would be fine, but here the tone is off; in keeping with Taylor’s citation of Bay Area punk bands, it’s like a note-for-note Warren Zevon cover dumped in the middle of Jawbreaker’s Dear You.
Another strength of the collection is that Taylor gets the small details right. He’s equally comfortable with a character named for the Buffalo hardcore band Snapcase as he is referencing the intricacies of the Grateful Dead’s history. (Their music plays a role in two of the collection’s strongest stories, “The New Life” and “Whistle Through Your Teeth and Spit.”) And the phrase that gives the book its title is one that has a pop hook’s sticking power — a tossed-off, day-glo take on “the best of all possible worlds.” As, if not more, significant, though, is how these characters react to it: quick glances, followed by a casual shrugging off, without pause to consider its meaning. And yet Taylor clearly wants this phrase to be considered, especially in light of the political, religious, and personal conflicts on display in these stories.
Throughout this book, there’s plentiful evidence that these settings are in no way home to the best thing(s) ever — and yet the way Taylor lingers on the small details, the way the narrator of “What Was Once All Yours,” lingers on his own digressions, the way the characters of “Amber in the Window in Hurricane Season” dance around one another in time, each one locked in an eternal moment all suggest painful gulfs of time and the changing perspective of memory. There are the people we were, and the people we’ll eventually become. But to be human in these stories is to be locked in that same eternal intermediate, where the Gary Lutz quote that takes us in, about asking “for what I did not yet know how not to want,” begins to make a lot more sense. Elliott Smith had a line in his song “Between the Bars” about the “people you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore.” If you ever thought that line rang true, you’ll find a lot to savor here.