A lot has already been written about Justin Taylor’s impressive Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, a debut short story collection by an HTML Giant contributor about hip, young people doing hip, young things. Whether or not you believe he’s the newest literary wunderkind or an overhyped blogger, the book I keep comparing his collection to is another debut, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. Both books are debut story collections that catapulted their respective authors into the literary limelight, but the similarities run deeper than that. Both, for the most part, employ a young, disaffected twenty-something male voice. Roth’s Neil Klugman is one of the great coming-of-age narrators of American fiction, and Taylor’s noticeably grimier protagonists go through similar hardships: first love, charged sexual liaisons, failure, and an uncertainty about one’s place in the world.
Likewise, both collections have flaws. The titular novella that opens up Roth’s book is a masterpiece that hints at his future greatness, but the five shorter works that follow are infinitely less interesting and complicated. These stories feel like riffs on bigger themes more than fully realized pieces of fiction. When readers think of Roth’s canon, they rarely remember early stories like ‘Eli, the Fanatic’ or ‘You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings’, both overly symbolic, yet competent works that are vastly overshadowed by his later library.
Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever shares a similar fate. There are many standouts. ‘In My Heart I Am Already Gone’ is a suburban drama about a high school boy who tries to win the girl of his dreams through voodoo. Its sparseness and setting evoke thoughts of Breece D’J Pancake and A.M Homes all at once. ‘Tennessee’ introduces a Floridian Jewish clan recently transplanted to the south who would feel right at home alongside Neil’s overbearing aunt and uncle in ‘Goodbye, Columbus’. Taylor also peppers his stories with truly terrifying moments like the unexpected thirst for violence in ‘Go Down Swinging’ and the brilliant apocalyptic rumination ‘Tetris’ in which a directionless man tries to best his high score on Nintendo while the end of the world occurs right outside his window. But there are some less successful stories — most involving anarchists quoting Derrida or hipster bums espousing 9/11 theories — that come off as a little too forced. The book is very contemporary and of the moment, and occasionally Taylor goes a bit overboard to remind us.
But what truly binds these two collections together is that the occasional missteps are greatly outweighed by flashes of legitimate human insight. Roth’s world is much softer than Taylor’s. There’s no moment quite as sweet in Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever as when Neil and his lover’s brother listen to the Ohio State graduation record in the recent grad’s childhood bedroom. Taylor’s characters are too post-sentiment, post-irony to engage in scenes like that. They contemplate breaking each other’s bones to avoid medical bills; they take solace in meaningless sexual relationships with no hope for the future; they get drunk and stoned and sulk and live on the fringe of society with barely a penny in their pocket.
But both books ring true. Goodbye, Columbus reflects the ideologies and culture of the late-1950′s: smothering conformity and the struggle of second-generation Americans trying to carve out an identity. Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever is a darker book for a darker time but still possesses all the human longing Philip Roth is known for. The real question isn’t whether Justin Taylor’s published a fantastic debut collection (he has), it’s if the promise of literary excellence held within its pages will be fulfilled as it has been with Roth.