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BOOK REVIEW

Anarchy and faith in a place called Fishgut

By Steve Almond
February 22, 2011

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Justin Taylor’s debut novel is a slender book with big ambitions. “The Gospel of Anarchy’’ tracks the youthful passions of a group of self-professed anarchists living in Gainesville (“the armpit of Florida’’) on the eve of the millennium. But more than anything, it’s a rambling treatise on the nature of faith.

How much you enjoy the book will probably depend on your tolerance for characters who pretentiously name-drop Kierkegaard and Chesterton and share thoughts such as this: “It is not soul competency that makes our hair grow, or pours the eye-brightening whiskey into the river of our thrumming blood.’’

The action centers on Fishgut, the grungy dwelling that houses a motley assortment of dropouts. Parker, a mysterious itinerant, has disappeared, leaving behind his journal, which is exhumed, edited, amended, and eventually adopted as a holy book called the Good Zine. Taylor has assembled all the hallmarks of a religious creation story: a prophetic dream, a charismatic leader, eager apostles, and exegetical squabbling.

Unfortunately, he’s far more concerned with his creed than his congregation. His characters seem more like mouthpieces than genuine people. We learn little about them beyond their half-baked dogma, and the point of view shifts frequently.

Taylor’s knack for capturing voices of youthful disaffection drove his story collection “Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever.’’ But novels depend on rising action. Characters can’t just wander and brood. They have to be driven by passionate agendas, and the conflicts between them have to be dramatized.

Taylor endeavors to convey passion, but strains for effect. One woman’s erotic interlude becomes “a chant in unsprung rhythm,’’ that “blots out the chattering doubts of that demon her consciousness and there in that throbbing vacuum finds a space both limitless and impossibly close, where she is fearless and safe, prone in joy and trembling, the tremble that becomes the bodyquake.’’

Matters of religious devotion get the same overwrought treatment. “See them now on their knees in the leaves,’’ Taylor writes, as the believers unearth Parker’s journal, “dirt under their fingernails and racing eyes aglow . . . passing the revealed testament of their prophet from hand to urgent hand. Every moment of being is an apocalypse. Every instant the world is made anew.’’

Taylor wants to capture the grandiosity of revelation, but this hysterical lyricism makes his disciples impossible to take seriously. The emotions feel asserted by the author, not experienced by the characters.

The essential appeal of a religion is that it responds to the particular fears and desires of its converts. Christ’s gospel of eternal reward was a direct response to the earthly hardship of his followers. His story was compelling because he did things: performed miracles, defied authority, gave up his life.

Taylor clearly wants to present a vision of faith that would captivate the millennial masses, kids for whom solipsism and ennui have become a de facto creed. But he never gets us beneath their rhetoric, to the individual dreams and terrors that animate belief.

And the Good Zine itself proves more exasperating than inspirational. It’s hard to believe that anyone — least of all a pack of “anarchists’’ — would buy into its mystic gibberish.

What do Parker’s followers actually want? What form would redemption take for them? The book offers no serious answers.

“Everywhere I went I saw the cancer, the devastation, as Parker himself had seen it, and my heart was sick to look upon these things,’’ one of his acolytes notes, “and I wanted to somehow get involved, not stand apart and watch. But what would I do? Join some group? Write a letter? Paint a sign and hold it up?’’

I can’t figure out whether Taylor is critiquing the nihilism of his generation, or on some deeper level reflecting it. It’s possible, of course, that he’s doing both.

Steve Almond, author of the memoir “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,’’ can be reached at sbalmond@earthlink.net.

THE GOSPEL OF ANARCHY By Justin Taylor

Harper Perennial, 240 pp., paperback, $13.99