An Age of Monsters by William Taylor Jr. (short stories, Epic Rites Press, 181 pages)
The stories collected in The Age of Monsters are as unadorned and straightforward as the blue-collar characters that inhabit them—characters who, in turn, inhabit cheap bars, motels and other dives across the US.
Focusing on self-destructive behaviour and self-destructive relationships, violence and art (sometimes all at once), the sparse narratives move via casual conversation, anecdote and reminisence with the barest momentum, rather than ripping along any well-plotted arcs. But that cautious pace just reflects the subject matter at hand, and Taylor certainly makes some subtle lyric twists along the way. These twists ensure that, while the stories are true to his character’s lives, they are never mundane.
Take “The Bastards Were Everywhere and Would Endure”, where the mantra-like repetition of a single epithet (“bastards”) imitates the violent cycle of reflection and frustration that grows throughout the story. Taylor gets his ideas across by building a visceral anger and tension through the main character, rather than by cheap exposition. Although the story ends with a desultory sigh that lets the air out of the tension rather than blowing things up in a satisfying conclusion (“The bastards were everywhere and would endure, but we do what we can”), this drifting end seems to be the existential point Taylor wants to make.
In the “Lives of the Poets II”, he juxtaposes the simple task of having a chapbook’s galleys approved against an increasingly absurd series of requests by the editorial team. The well-meaning publisher and editor try to give the poet and his work a ridiculous image makeover (essentially ‘Beating’ him up), which allows Taylor to examine honesty in art; that is, that sometimes resistance to selling out comes more from circumstance than virtue (this is a makeover that would never quite take). It is a biting bit of self-referential humour from Taylor, who notes:
“I have nothing against poets…I came to San Francisco to be among them. But it’s generally a good rule not to trust anyone who introduces themselves to you as such. Or has it written on their business card. It usually just means they’re unemployed, self-obsessed and have no skills that make them useful in the everyday world. Of course, I wrote poetry, too.”
Taylor has a few other tricks in his pen. The extremely short “My Hemingway Dream” lulls like a passage from a dream journal, but accretes a surrealistic quilt through patches of violence, comedy and absurdity (and stands the indulgent memoirist style on its head). The title story is a dark, cheeky quip that takes inspiration from and pays homage to past creepy pop-culture clowns (see: Krusty or Shakes). Taylor also gives us an anti-Bonnie and Clyde in “The Legend of Eddie and Lola” where, rather than going off with guns-a-blazing, the characters “argued for a while about whether or not they should wear masks…But what kind of masks? Ski masks? Nobody skied much in Kansas and Halloween was months ago”.
Like Eddie and Lola, the rest of the characters in Monsters largely go nowhere and grow little, and the stories tend to end abruptly. But the effect of that brusque dismissal is to allow for quiet reflection on the lives of the lowest of the low, rather than as a simple punch-line outro.
Momentum or no, Taylor’s manner of spicing up his examination of the everyday makes us feel like we’ve still travelled a ways and met some interesting locals.
Meet the locals at http://www.epicrites.org