A subtle misanthropy pervades Justin Taylor's debut story collection, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. Taylor's heroes—mostly males ranging from twitchy kids to restless thirty-somethings—are reliably uncomfortable in their own skins, embracing risk in an attempt to salvage some sense of themselves. The nameless narrator of "Jewels Flashing in the Night of Time" works in a small-town sandwich shop and offers an unnerving soliloquy about deli meat: Ham is "pink as a boiled baby and is 11 percent water and comes wrapped in this plastic with a red criss-cross design on it and when you slice it open a stream of orange-gray liquid spills out and then you pull the whole wrapping off and it makes a wet huck noise." His discourse is jumbled together with equally visceral musings about sex, his oblivious young coworker, and the torture at Abu Ghraib—though it's the expertise with which he feeds flesh into the slicer that's the most unsettling, as well as the most intimate.
Taylor probes the ways time shifts our perceptions, how people forestall the future and fixate on the past. The moving, understated "What Was Once All Yours" circles around Cass and Troy, a casual high school couple trying to gauge the scale of their feelings against the unknown years ahead. In "Somewhere I Have Heard This Before," eleven-year-old Stan's older female cousin schools him in music and awkward groping. "Anything was possible with Mandy, who smelled sour in a sort of good way and that was only the tip of the iceberg of how she was strange," Taylor writes.
Best when a little sly, Taylor occasionally paints with overly broad strokes. "Tennessee" is bogged down by so many Jewish stereotypes it's as if the author were competing to pack them in. The clichés undermine the tale's dramatic effect and stifle the interactions between a prodigal son and his younger brother that are at the heart of the story. In "Estrellas y Rascacielos," one of two stories about a group of anarchist housemates, Taylor displays a lighter touch, mocking the characters' politics and drinking habits as a way of demonstrating his fluency in their mores. In the second story, though, these wannabe agitators are transformed, becoming more than the sum of their sketchy ideals and dirty clothes.
EVERYTHING HERE IS THE BEST THING EVER shows up as Florida sidewalk graffiti in the volume's first story and scrawled on the wall of an East Village café in the last. This insistently cheerful refrain hovers over the whole collection: Reality may be middling, but it's crucial to bestow a superlative on certain people, places, and encounters; those are the things that settle into your memory. Taylor's characters would like for time to both speed up and slow down—an impossible, inevitable wish that makes the moments he captures worth savoring.