JUSTIN TAYLOR'S first story collection, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, dazzled critics both for the writer's age (a mere 27 years!) and the collection's focus on youth, disaffected and otherwise. But now Taylor's in his 30s—we stop keeping track after 29—and his focus has broadened, too: The subjects in Flings range from the adolescent turmoil of young friendship all the way up to an unpitying look at a widow living alone in a Florida retirement community.
The collection begins with the title story, which is set in Portland with a cast of twentysomething transplants. It moves its characters around as dispassionately as pawns on a chessboard: Danny loves Rachel who knows Ellen who loves Scott. Kat loves Percy, but she shouldn't. It's a lot of names and a lot of tersely summarized relationships, and it's no preparation at all for the collection's far better second story: "Sungold" is the first-person, voice-driven account of how the deadbeat manager of a fast food restaurant learns to start thinking of women as human beings. The whiplash transition between these stories is emblematic of the collection as a whole: Flings toggles between urgent, breathing character studies, and forgettable, overpopulated stories where characters are just another name on the page.
Close attention to all these names is occasionally rewarded—a few characters pop up more than once—but the interlinked nature of the stories can be distracting, and the knowledge that you might've met a character before nags like a loose tooth. Is Carol's friend Marlene in "Carol, Alone" the same great-aunt Marlene who liked a Facebook photo way back in "After Ellen"? Probably. And the kid selling drugs in the Phish show parking lot is the same kid we met at a summer camp years before and pages earlier. But some of these connections are so glancing as to make you wonder why Taylor even bothers. If the point is to highlight how people pass in and out of each other's lives, it works, kind of, but it doesn't serve the stories particularly well—a few seem half-finished, their characters peering wistfully through the pages at far-away friends. The stories that essentially stand alone, though, like "Sungold" and "Saint Wade," are complete and satisfying, impactful and voice-driven little slices of story that you don't need a glossary of character names to appreciate.