It should come as little surprise that the first novel by Justin Taylor, who in 2007 edited an anthology of doomsday scenarios called The Apocalypse Reader, is all about religion and anarchy. What's more surprising, perhaps, is that it is also a paean to Gainesville, Florida, circa 1999. Indeed, the book follows its characters with an almost Google Maps specificity as they wander that city's streets and scrounge through dumpsters. Taylor's knowledge of dark corners is a plus, because The Gospel of Anarchy explores the no-man's-land between college kids and townies: the hidden spaces of dropouts, punks, visionaries, and addicts.
Last year saw the publication of Taylor's impressive debut collection, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, which contains several stories set in contemporary anarchist collectives. In The Gospel of Anarchy, the collective is based in a house called Fishgut and is what's left of another community after one of its members OD's. All sorts come through Fishgut—a pair of hippies station their camper van outside, college kids slum there, a skinny, shirtless man pitches his tent between house and fence—but at the core of the community is the now-absent Parker, a kind of prophetic figure negotiating a complicated path between anarchist philosophy and mystical Christianity. There is also Thomas, a skeptic and doubter (his connection to Doubting Thomas is a little too firmly underlined); Katy, who equates sex with religious rapture; Liz, who equates love and sex with self-abnegation; and Anchor, a college woman who is integral to the collective—she's helping others through a spiritual transformation but is never tempted to leave her "real" life behind. There is also David, who is given the distinction of being the book's only first-person narrator (he narrates about a third of the total novel). David is a porn-obsessed college dropout working for a call center who, one night, stumbles into Fishgut. Once there, he gets sexually involved with Katy and Liz, quickly abandoning his apartment and his past.
As the story eddies around its various characters, Taylor explores the repercussions of "Anarchristianity" (or "anarcho-mysticism," or "the fault line where Anarchy and Jesus meet") in their lives. Each character has a different reason for being at Fishgut: While some aspire to an almost Tolstoyan Christian anarchism, others remain skeptical of Parker's "teachings," which Katy interprets from his notebooks. And, of course, some are mainly in it for the sex. But soon their notions infect one another, breeding resentment in some and fervor in others—and propelling some entirely out of the collective.
Taylor presents the obsessions of his characters with a sureness that suggests an insider's knowledge. He writes effortlessly about the collective's interests, punctuating the book with allusions that readers will recognize (Radiohead, Thomas Aquinas), as well as many they might not (Dead Moon, John Zerzan). Taylor himself is deeply influenced by Flannery O'Connor, whose ghost flutters over Fishgut. It's no coincidence that the prophet figure is dubbed Parker (cf. O'Connor's story "Parker's Back") or that the plasma center where Taylor's characters sell their blood borrows its name from O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."
Taylor's anarchist ethics and penchant for sex scenes are, of course, worlds away from O'Connor's more traditional Christian vision. Taylor is also a good deal less interested in standard character development than was the author of Wise Blood. He is quite effective at putting together extended scenes full of lively prose. His style is minimal, clear, and crisp without being glib, and he captures the rhythms of the characters' speech without losing the critical distance that lets us see Fishgut more fully than any of the characters can manage. But he has difficulty making characters evolve through the scenes themselves. Taylor is much better at creating character images that contrast from scene to scene, allowing these unexplained changes to do the work of character development. Sometimes this works, particularly in David's metamorphosis from pathetic and porn-obsessed telemarketer to zealous Anarchristian. But with other characters, these hidden transformations, though intriguing, can seem frustratingly schematic or discordant.
There are moments when The Gospel of Anarchy feels like a sequence of scenes trying, and failing, to come together as a book. The narrative voice begins with David's first person, then shifts through a series of largely third-person sections that jump in attention and focus, ventriloquizing the thoughts of some characters but not others. This textured third-person narration occasionally breaks into first-person plural: "Her lemonade's all gone but she can't refill her glass—won't, anyway—because she knows they're watching her, all three of us, thinking how we're just dirty punks here for a free snack." But instead of making use of this protruding narrator, Taylor largely leaves the "us" as a vague and unsatisfying gesture.
Despite these flaws, Taylor's writing—particularly in the latter sections—is exceptionally good. Locally, the sentences are incisive and tumbling. But what's even more powerful is the way those sentences accumulate into larger ideas. Late in the novel, Taylor's themes of religion and anarchy slip, almost imperceptibly, into scenes of madness. As the community shifts and changes, its doctrines become more codified, its controversies more acute, sending some characters running for cover and making others zealously desire salvation. The fact that it's hard to tell who is saved and who is facing a personal apocalypse is a testament to Taylor's subtle gifts and a strong conclusion for a sometimes rocky first novel.
Brian Evenson is the author, most recently, of Fugue State (Coffee House, 2009) and Last Days (Underland, 2009).