“Real Life,” Brandon Taylor’s bravura first novel, revolves around a man who fits in but also stands out. Wallace is in his fourth year of graduate school, pursuing a degree in biochemistry. When not studying, he and his friends get together and make the most of the great outdoors. But Wallace is painfully aware of his outsider status. As a black, gay, introverted man from Alabama, he feels like a stranger in this Midwestern town and a peripheral hanger-on in his social circle. “He always got stuck on the edges,” Taylor writes, “talking to whoever pitied him enough to throw him a bone of small talk.”
Compounding matters is Wallace’s flagging enthusiasm and ability. Surrounded by brilliant minds, he worries that his heart is no longer in his studies. He yearns to break free of his cloistered realm of research and experiments, “to leap out of his life and into the vast, incalculable void of the world.”
One day, Wallace’s cares and woes are temporarily put on hold during a surprise passionate encounter with a fellow student. There is initial confusion — Miller believed himself to be straight, Wallace never envisaged a true friendship let alone a relationship — but soon both men embrace their newly forged connections and self-discoveries.
Problems arise when tender feelings give way to violent outbursts. Equally tough is Wallace’s valiant struggle and losing battle to overcome childhood trauma, together with his ongoing friction with individuals who rub him the wrong way or wear him down. As he deals with each successive hard knock, he wonders if someone can give him hope, “a belief in the goodness of things, in the capacity of the world to turn around and change its mind.”
In many respects, Taylor’s debut is a novel of extreme contrasts. Wallace experiences pleasure and pain, kindness and brutality, longing and release. He is calm in his own company and uncomfortable in a group dynamic. He is immersed in his academic bubble but also wants to sample “real life.” Taylor lays bare his protagonist’s conflictions and afflictions without rendering him a figure of pity. We come to champion Wallace as he examines his heart and his unhealed wounds, and his attempts to harden himself against destructive forces.
Hostility appears on all fronts and in a variety of absorbing set-piece scenes. During a testy lab session, Wallace is wrongly accused of misogyny by a colleague who flaunts her homophobia. At a fraught dinner party he endures condescending put-downs and casual racism. And at the end of an intense exchange with Miller he decides that “friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty.”
“Real Life” unfolds over a single summer weekend. The compressed time frame and closely packed events ensure that the proceedings are always emotionally charged. Taylor shines a vital light on race, class and sexuality, and in doing so leaves his reader in no doubt as to his unique voice and talent.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Brandon Taylor.
Publisher: Riverhead, 327 pages, $26.
Event: Wordplay festival, May 9, downtown Minneapolis.