In the popular video game Tetris, the goal is to fit shapes together until a line is formed, and then that line magically disappears. If players aren't doing their job correctly, the shapes descend quickly and the music speeds up as a stressful reminder that the top of the screen, or the end of the game, is looming closer and closer.
In Justin Taylor's debut collection of short stories, "Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever" (HarperPerennial, 185 pages, $13.99), one of the most touching moments in the book occurs during a story called "Tetris." The world is ending outside the window, but the narrator immerses himself in the game and doesn't awaken his sleeping girlfriend.
"This game is designed to end, not to be beaten; I doubt they even programmed a graphic for the YOU WIN screen. Once you hit level eighteen the pieces are falling almost quicker than hand-eye coordination can trace, and it can go faster and faster. It outlasts you."
It's this idea of playing a game just to get to the finish that permeates the lives of Taylor's characters. Many of them don't have grandiose dreams or realized aspirations; they are caught up in the unbeatable game of their own lives.
Again and again in Taylor's stories, he focuses on the youth-riddled version of human experience. There is a raw force to his writing, and he doesn't shy away from difficult topics, such as incestuous inclinations and Abu Ghraib.
None of the characters in "What Was Once All Yours" is a particularly good person; all are selfish or flawed in their own ways. The main character looks back on his time in high school, when his mother became a religious nut and his father abandoned the family. The narrator gets a girl pregnant and brings her to get an abortion out of town. Taylor slips in sentences that are gripping. As the narrator returns to town, he thinks, "The world is not brimming over with grace, but it does have some."
Many of the stories mention religion, and some take a darkly humorous stance. In "The Jealousy of Angels," angels kill a woman, and afterward her boyfriend splits a six-pack of beer with Satan. Satan's advice to the disgruntled narrator, who has just witnessed his girlfriend's demise? "'You can fill out a complaint form,' Satan said. 'It'll take 'em a while to process it, always does.'"
A few of the stories are sexually explicit in a disturbing way -- in "Jewels Flashing in the Night of Time," there's a sequence that will make me never look at cold cuts the same way again -- but they still brim with a sorrowful intensity that is transfixing, much like the rest of the book.
Michele Filgate is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in New Hampshire.