by David A. Taylor
Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 216 pages, $15.95
David A. Taylor, journalist and documentary film writer, presents fourteen superbly-crafted tales in his recent collection, Success: Stories. While aptly titled, this is not an assortment of fourteen “success stories” in which protagonists achieve their desires and experience triumph in the face of adversity. Rather, these are moments that explore the most vital crises of existence, when human emotions—desire and isolation, suspicion and jealousy—boil over, leaving in their wake exquisite failure and a conflict that blooms in complexity every time the reader revisits it.
Success moves about freely in a myriad of settings, traversing countries—across the States, Sri Lanka, Bangkok, Nepal, China, and an isolated Muslim village in Morocco. Taylor plays his cards as an experienced transcontinental journalist. He effectively portrays the multiple social and political dimensions of different cultures through painstaking detail without falling prey to exoticism and without making his stories seem scattered. In fact, including such a wide berth of subjects provides the collection with a unifying effect; it makes Taylor’s imagination appear universal, a reminder that the quiet sense of impending disaster lying beneath the terrain of his stories applies to everyone.
An undercurrent of surrealism runs through Taylor’s stark, realistic landscapes. The collection begins at a sterile treatment center in “Strikers” and ends, vaguely, in a dark workshop in “Angelina Before the Throne of Heaven,” where we stand with a mail order bride amidst crudely carved wooden statues, memory and the ambiguous present blending around her. There are many sealed pockets of abnormality here. Taylor’s stories feature the kinds of characters that unquestionably warrant storytelling: a deaf locksmith, a bleach-blonde electrolysis with an interest in explosives, a drunk on a train wearing a “Fighting Yahoos” t-shirt. Taylor strikes a balance between the humorous and the bizarre, though many of the stones overturned in his world reveal gruesome, frightening things; we hear about the incident of a gorgeous, lady executioner, laying out the heads of her victims “like some kind of horrible cabbage.”
Taylor wanders ambitiously among various places and subjects, but one of his more significant endeavors is his magnification of characters’ relationships to one another, which often fall to pieces, sometimes as a direct result of the actions characters take to strengthen them. In the collection’s title story, Mike, married to his brother Roscoe’s ex-wife, agrees to read and edit the manuscript of Roscoe’s self-help book. Thoughtless but well-intentioned, Mike finds himself unable to ease animosity within the family, an understanding he arrives at beneath wife’s glance, illuminating “what puts me down a notch in her gauge of life’s chances.” Many of Taylor’s protagonists seem to have lost footing in their relationships as Mike has. Howard in “Counterfeit” finds that his wife’s poor humor and declining health disrupt their dream tour through Nepal. “We make these crazy decisions on the spur of the moment, with no information, then we’re flabbergasted when they don’t work out,” she says to him. “Are we adults?” Howard’s failure, his inability to assemble information from the world around him in a way that makes sense, is the embodiment of an immature marriage that has quickly turned sour.
Family relationships receive a similar treatment, as demonstrated in the oedipal account of the father in “Pelagro,” whose loses every week at the race track and whose son finally bests him by picking the winning horse. “I kissed each of Andrew Jackson’s twin scowling green faces,” beams the son, relishing in the reprisal for the shame of his father’s losing. His father calls him “Moneybags” and “tried to make it jokey, but his grin was clenched.” Taylor paints this moment as the son’s great triumph, the sudden, upward trajectory toward adulthood and independence. It is quickly thwarted, however, when the father mentions that the losing horse will be “destroyed,” an act that manipulates the son’s emotions and allows the father to regain control once again.
Tucked like gems into the dark folds of Taylor’s work, there is humor also, at times subtle, at times absurd. A young man, acting on vengeance for having the girl of his dreams stolen, tells his hiccupping friend before they parachute from a plane over Scotland: “Hiccupping is the single biggest cause of skydiving fatalities.” It is true also that, despite their failures, Taylor never ridicules his characters. He is always tender toward them, even in their weakest moments. It is their basic good-nature—their honest attempts often ending in shambles in spite of their determination, sometimes as a result of it—that makes them worthy of the vibrant world they inhabit.
Taylor introduces Success with a quote from Henry Miller’s Black Spring: “Where is the warm summer’s day when first I saw the green-carpeted earth revolving and men and women moving like panthers?…The world has become a mystic maze erected by a gang of carpenters in the night.” So Taylor’s stories also become a maze under the guise of transparent prose and dialogue, with characters you feel you might know but are, at the same time, wholly new. These stories lure you in and turn on you; standing on familiar ground, something far more mystifying pushes itself up from the terrain.