Flings by Justin Taylor

Flings: Stories BY Justin Taylor. Harper. Hardcover, 240 pages. $23.
The cover of Flings: Stories

For all its advantages, the novel must cede ground to the short story when it comes to capturing the contemporary idiom. A great story collection, and Justin Taylor’s Flings is a great story collection, swoops through the world like a butterfly net capturing not only the way we speak but the way we think.

Take the following moment from the unforgettable story “Sungold,” in which our narrator describes his job at a bar-restaurant, which requires him to wear a giant mushroom costume on the street corner, attempting to bring in customers. He is hopping inside the foam suit on a summer day in Florida, sweating, his arms pinned to his sides in the mushroom's stalk. He looks out a grille he likens to the hair catch over a shower drain, and observes:

Black teenage boys—now this is interesting—will cross the street to avoid me. They’ll sprint into traffic; I’ve seen it through the hair catch…. Now 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. On the other hand, it’s only fair to admit that if such a disease existed....

In isolation, the above paragraph shares some qualities with the shorter works of David Foster Wallace, particularly its “aw-shucks” tone (“now this is interesting … now I’ll grant you … I don’t know”) and its rhetorical strategy of doubling back to consider the alternative that all of the preceding speculation was wrong, swimming back upstream, as it were, through the flow of the page. Taylor’s gift, however, is to repurpose American speech patterns to create a layered sense of character. He transports us directly to the confines of that mushroom suit and the mind of a character who must accept this indignity. We are all in that mushroom suit.

Throughout the collection, Taylor’s prose remains a vivid constant, precisely matched to the content of the story. Easy enough if he were writing the same story twelve times. But here’s where Taylor really excels. The stories in Flings map out a broad swath of America and accurately capture the thoughts and voices of vastly different characters. Two coworkers conspire to defraud a boss who sips straight from the Jägerator (“Sungold”); a seventy-two year old widow, in her own moment of conspiracy, feeds an alligator some boneless chicken breasts (“Carol, Alone”). We see the unique impulsive behavior of both a first-time dognapper (“After Ellen”) and a rookery of hipsters out after dark (“A Night Out”).

Though far-ranging, the stories in Flings also bend back on one another, providing the reader with several axes of symmetry; spin the book in any number of ways and you won’t see it wobble. Take a seemingly random example: the book’s many allusions to China. In the title story, which leads off the collection, a couple grows tired of Boston and starts over in Hong Kong. Later in the book, that city becomes something like a protagonist in the story “Happy Valley.” The young lovers of “Poets,” presumably MFA students at NYU, go out on a first date in Chinatown. “They ate soup dumplings and a noodle thing with mushrooms in a brown sauce, and maintained their good cheer even upon learning that the place did not serve hard liquor, only Chinese beer.” In the story “After Ellen,” our protagonist walks through another Chinatown, this time in San Francisco. “In the open-faced souvenir shops that line the steep streets there are countless jade or wood statuettes of Hotei Buddha, fat and laughing, and sweaters, sweatshirts, hoodies, and hats in every color of the rayon rainbow, all emblazoned with a Golden Gate Bridge.” By “Saint Wade,” Chinatown is now a PF Chang’s in a strip mall, where single-mother Terese battles the same corporate restaurant culture we shook our heads at in “Sungold.”

Music appreciation is the only thread explicitly stringing one story to the next. But here it is the implication, rather than the explication, that becomes significant; referencing music allows Taylor to rapidly develop character. When a stranger sidles up next to Gregory in “Gregory’s Year” and mentions a Dead show in ’74, we can smell the guy, because we hung out with him in a car park before the Phish show in “Mike’s Song.” We have seen a DJ bask in laptop light after a good set (“After Ellen”) and can appreciate the metaphoric language used to describe similar music in “A Night Out”: “Sampled snatches of music are like flying fish in the river of a doubled-up dubstep, breaking the surface and flashing in the air, then disappearing again.”

Taylor plucks each note only once and then allows it to echo through the collection, bouncing from one story to the next. The sum of all these echoes is a unified work. Stories are linked by motif rather than by characters, and the feeling is akin to watching Wong Kar Wai’s informal trilogy, or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors. Themes bridge one story to the next.

Flings is the book in the Laughing Buddha’s cloth sack. Justin Taylor has written an expansive collection of beauty, wisdom, and big-heartedness.

Will Chancellor is the author of the novel A Brave Man Seven Stories Tall (Harper, 2014).