REVIEW: Flings by Justin Taylor
Not all of Justin Taylor’s characters are honest with themselves. His collection, Flings, is composed of stories where characters make a choice: either continue to live life as a series of surface-level connections, or dig in and get real. Many of Taylor’s stories illustrate moments between pairs, but these are not couples in the traditional sense. Some are casual entanglements; others, obligations between young friends or business partners. In each situation, Taylor provides his protagonist with an opportunity to rise above. Some of them accept the opportunity, but just as many don’t, which can be far more interesting.
Taylor’s stories fall into one of two categories. As the title would suggest, a few center on romantic flings, and as such they are almost lists of micro-histories of relationships. The titular story, “Flings,” as well as the story, “A Night Out”, are two examples; these stories have a quick pace and convey a real sense of characters moving from one connection to another. There are some relationships that bleed from one story to another, but the best feature of Taylor’s work is in his ability to condense each entanglement into a short, impactful passage. The second type of story in Flings is more traditional: individual characters confront the items in their lives that keep holding them back. In “Sungold,” a young employee at a vegan pizza pub decides to change his path. In “Carol, Alone,” a widow fights grief and the things that go bump in the night. “Saint Wade” and “The Happy Valley” are about characters that accept both more responsibility and awareness as a key part of their adult lives.
But Flings isn’t just about deep contemplation; Taylor’s writing also contains an immeasurable amount of wit. His characters are often find themselves in sad yet funny situations. He writes pitiful well, as when the wearer of a plush mushroom costume stands on the street to promote a vegan restaurant in “Sungold” and contemplates the racial implications of the reaction to his costume:
No I’ll grant you, a guy wearing a full-body fur mushroom suit to promote an organic vegetarian pizza pub is arguably the whitest thing to have occurred in the history of whiteness, but it’s not as though it’s going to rub off on them. It’s not like it’s contagious, like breathing the air around me will result in sudden loss of pigmentation, cravings for old Friends episodes, and I don’t know, a Dave Matthews box set.
In the same story, Taylor’s description of the owner and the other employees are both spot-on and hilarious. Taylor does what many short story authors strive to do: He is able to write convincing characters with humor so as to allow for their musings to show us more than might have been if without the relatable veil of comedy.
Flings is filled with salient moments that make the reader stop and reflect. Because of the levity he employs, Taylor is also able to offer poignant commentary on relationships, often in one or two simple sentences; a perfect example can be found in the story, “Flings”:
Danny, no sap like Kat, understood that he and Rachel would never be “together.” And yet the allure of what they inflicted on each other — the sheer thrill of wounding and the deep satisfaction of licking each other’s wounds clean — was too great to resist. He could not imagine living without it.
What makes this collection both smart and entertaining is the quality of Taylor’s character reflections. In “Poets,” Taylor describes MFA program love with an insider’s eye, and gives this cheer-worthy description of the ideal woman:
She was thirty-four, but if you got her out of her professorial dress suit and into, say, jeans and a peasant blouse, she could still pass for twenty-seven. Naked you could see she was at least thirty, but her thirty made it seem like thirty was the great perfect age: a goal. […] This woman looked like what it meant to be a woman, in her stunning adult prime.
In “Carol, Alone”, Carol deals with a widow trying to fill her time. An alligator begins to appear on the back porch, offering a unique juxtaposition to the doldrums of her retirement-community existence:
Sometimes when I’m exercising, I’ll wonder, what is the point of this? The hope is for health, of course, and that the sunlight and heat and exertion will prove exhausting, set the foundation for a good night’s well-earned rest. Sometimes it happens this way, but not often. It’s more like my body and mind are disconnected, my days and nights non sequitur to each other. Sometimes I feel like the hole in my life is even larger than my life ever was, and that I live inside it, potted like a houseplant in the soil of my grief.
It doesn’t help that Carol has to constantly remind a friend’s husband that her own husband is gone. Memory issues put her into a strange loop of obligation. By story’s end she stands on her porch, flinging meat into the night, and Taylor leaves the reader with the idea that she has found something new within herself.
In Flings, each liaison is an opportunity for personal growth.The title of Taylor’s collection forces us to think about all the possible Flings we have, the type of behavior that marks our lives. Taylor’s deft observation of character makes it clear that he’s interested the standards people live by. He has mastered the art funny/sad, and in doing so, his collection becomes a book as relatable as it is a fitting trademark of our modern lives.
by Justin Taylor