by Brandon Taylor
After a long stretch of social isolation, many of us are now haphazardly back in public life, re-introducing ourselves to a roster of familiar faces as well as forgotten inconveniences—a crowd-pleaser. The crap room, the icy judgment of strangers, the myriad pressures of being around other people. Brandon Taylor knows it or not, in “Filthy Beasts” he provides a perfect companion piece to our nervous era of reopenings. Following the success of his acclaimed debut novel, “real life,” Taylor’s first story collection presents brilliant, sad portraits of overwhelmed characters.
In the first story, a painful but casual conversation in a crowded potluck leads to an all-out panic attack in the main character’s bathroom, which eventually leads to a prickly love triangle. This establishes a through-line for the collection: the mess people bring into each other’s fragile lives. Roughly half the book follows Lionel, a damaged graduate student; Charles, a muscular dancer; and Sophie, Charles’ obstinate girlfriend—and the dynamics of their entanglement after meeting at the aforementioned potluck in Madison, Wis. The other half tells unlinked stories that range from stellar to very good (I’m not sure Taylor is capable of doing the “bad” he’s writing).
Taken as a whole, the book is a study in wicked hunger, and although the linked story line has the most gems—and benefits greatly from the same attention to structure that Taylor brought to “real life”—others ( Especially “Like Though That Were Love”) is not to be missed. Across the book, wishes bubble up at inappropriate moments – in the awkward space between ex-lovers telling each other that their mother has died, or in a library where a girlfriend wants her boyfriend to share her with another. Reveal all the intimacy of his hookup with the man the night before while he strangles her. “Filthy Beast” here, shines in the dirt.
It’s not all dirt though. Taylor has a talent for taking the dull laughter of Quodian life and turning it into lyrics—see how shredded potatoes “like a thing pulled out of the sea” or how “woolen Christmas garlands and old coats peer from the corners.” These intimacy, often casual, are wonderfully paired with the uglier, more brutal elements to establish the focus of the book: the wild, vague impulses that lurk under the veneer that people find themselves in terrifying shape. can inspire you to change.
Of the many monsters profiled, the “sick” babysitter of “Little Beast” is the first to come to mind. It is a twisted, gothic fairy tale (featuring characters named Mac and Jill) about a babysitter who is contemplating her dysfunctional thoughts about the young child in her care. “She tries to hide her wolf teeth,” writes Taylor, “the part of her that wants to reach out and snatch the girl and cut her to pieces.” These doses of ferocity also add a lot to the feel of tamer stories, where danger can happen right behind the tree line. In the title story, two childhood friends in Alabama reach for each other as their paths diverge – Milton’s parents sending him to Idaho in a final attempt to save his life path, and Nolan himself and are more thoroughly and devotedly devoted to violence. If the eyes elsewhere look at us from the trees, here we are running in full force to the hut.
The story also highlights another strength of the collection: its queer handling, particularly in its physical manifestations. It’s remarkable for a writer of Taylor’s caliber to portray these uninvolved queer hookups so effortlessly. From Milton’s point of view, he writes, “Abe is making her faster and faster, rougher.” “It hurts, but it also feels good, and it’s the first time someone wants to touch her, like that.” Looks like it’s needed by Abe. His eyes are hungry and wet.” Frightening judgments, squid-inducing acts of aggression, and, the entire time, monsters lurking in the shadows: “Filthy Beasts” makes human interaction seem like a thrilling horror story. As such, it brings both the anxiety and the allure of “getting out of there”. tells to.