By Brandon Taylor
After a long stretch of social isolation, many of us are now wading haphazardly back into public life, reintroducing ourselves to a roster of familiar faces as well as to forgotten discomforts — a crowded room, the icy judgment of strangers, the myriad pressures of being around other people. Whether Brandon Taylor knows it or not, in “Filthy Animals” he’s provided a perfect companion piece for our nervous era of reopening. Following the success of his much-lauded debut novel, “Real Life,” Taylor’s first story collection presents sumptuous, melancholic portraits of characters overwhelmed.
In the first story, a pained but casual conversation at a crowded potluck leads to the main character’s full-blown panic attack in the bathroom, ultimately leading to a thorny love triangle. It establishes a through-line for the collection: the messiness people bring to one another’s fragile lives. Roughly half the book follows Lionel, a damaged grad student; Charles, a muscled dancer; and Sophie, Charles’s headstrong 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 pretty good (I’m not sure Taylor is capable of “bad” writing).
The through line for the collection is the messiness people bring to one another’s fragile lives.
Taken as a whole, the book is a study in rogue appetites, and though the connected story line holds the most gems — and benefits greatly from the same attention to structure that Taylor brought to “Real Life” — the others (in particular “As Though That Were Love”) are not to be missed. Across the book, desires bubble up at inappropriate moments — in the awkward space between former lovers after one tells the other that his mother has died, or in a library where a girlfriend wants her boyfriend to tell her all the intimacies of his hookup with another man the night before, while he straddles her. “Filthy Animals” shines here, in the dirt.
It’s not all grime, though. Taylor has a talent for taking the dull hum of quotidian life and converting it into lyrics — see sliced potatoes rising “like something hauled out of the sea,” or how “woolly Christmas garlands and old coats peer at them from corners.” These intimacies, often cozy, pair splendidly with the uglier, more brutal elements to establish the book’s focus: the feral that lurks under the veneer, the unspoken impulses that can lead people to contort themselves into gruesome shapes.
Of the many monsters profiled, the “sick” babysitter from “Little Beast” comes to mind first. This is a twisted, gothic fairy tale (featuring characters named Mac and Jill) about a babysitter contemplating her unsavory thoughts about the small child in her care. “She tries to conceal her wolf’s teeth,” Taylor writes, “the part of her that wants to reach out and snatch the girl and tear her to pieces.” These doses of ferocity add much to the experience of the tamer stories too, where danger might be lurking just behind the tree line. In the title story, two childhood friends in Alabama reach out for each other as their paths diverge — Milton’s parents are sending him to Idaho in a last-ditch effort to salvage his life path, and Nolan is devoting himself more thoroughly and devoutly to violence. If elsewhere eyes peer out at us from trees, here we are sprinting full force into the bramble.
This story also highlights another strength of the collection: its handling of queerness, particularly in its physical manifestations. It’s notable for an author of Taylor’s caliber to depict so unflinchingly these unsanitized queer hookups. “Abe is pumping him harder and faster, rough,” he writes, from Milton’s perspective. “It hurts, but it also feels good, and it’s that first time that someone has wanted to touch him, has seemed to need it the way Abe does. His eyes are hungry and wet.” Appalling decisions, squirm-inducing acts of aggression and, throughout, demons lurking in the shadows: “Filthy Animals” makes human contact seem like a thrilling horror story. As such, it speaks to both the anxiety and allure of “getting back out there.”