Epigrams abound in Justin Taylor’s stories. “Everyone’s their own best lover,” one voice observes. “The assumption of knowledge is one part of the fantasy of mastery,” muses a different narrator. One of his characters reproves another: “Every day of your life is getting something you never asked for.”
That kind of compressed truth exemplifies Taylor’s strengths, which combine surprise with unexpected depth. At first glance his stories resemble Florida trailer-park fiction, with grotesque characters who may be poor, crude, drunk, and violent. Then a stoned character puts down a friend’s remark with the rhetorical question, “Who’s that? Barthelme?,” and the reader suddenly finds himself on a different plane entirely.
Beyond the literary references, which are numerous, Taylor’s sophistication shows itself in the way he treats existential questions about happiness, love, justice, goodness, and eternity, concerns that lie at the heart of great literature. Perhaps subconsciously he brings to mind Isaac Bashevis Singer, another Jewish writer who felt at home with ghosts, angels, magic spells, sexual desire, human failings, mortality, spiritual yearnings, and with other writers.
Taylor’s descriptions are stunning in their evocative originality, such as “talk radio that makes your brain shrivel up like a salted slug.” A man carries an injured woman “like a monster with a cherished victim.” A young East Village woman is summed up as a “bottle blond with end-of-season-sale designer wear.” His voice is utterly contemporary, including its casual attitude towards a fluid and sometimes brutal sexuality. The tour de force of this collection, “Jewels Flashing in the Night of Time,” examines power and obsession as it seamlessly integrates the tortures of Abu Ghraib, meatslicing at a deli, quotes from Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, and masochistic sex. This is a memorable, astonishing debut.