by Brandon Taylor
Riverhead Books. 276 pages, $26.
BRANDON TAYLOR’S second book, Filthy Animals, is a collection of short stories alternating between connected and stand-alone tales. The linked ones tell the story of Lionel, a Black graduate student in mathematics, and his evolving relationship with a white couple, Charles and Sophie, both dancers. Lionel struggles with the feeling of being the only Black person in his school in Wisconsin, as well as with being gay. On leave from his program after a suicide attempt, he now proctors exams in various departments. One story, “Proctoring,” captures the “secondhand embarrassment” and tedium of this job, the “easy … chain of events” that can be both soothing for Lionel and a sad reminder of his fall.
Another reminder comes in the first story, “Potluck,” as Lionel and Charles meet at a mutual friend’s dinner party and have a painfully awkward beginning. After Lionel mentions that “now it takes me a year just to get to the end of one thought,” Charles insensitively responds: “If I were that in my head, I’d kill myself. … Sounds awful. Jesus.”
Despite this terrible start, Lionel and Charles have a powerful, if strange, connection. After he leaves the party, Charles follows him home and spends the night with him. Charles’ partner Sophie encounters Lionel in a later story, and they have a deep conversation. She seems to feel no jealousy toward Lionel for sleeping with Charles; indeed, she chides Charles when he sits down with them and speaks cruelly. While she remains somewhat mysterious in comparison to Lionel and Charles, she is perhaps the most caring of the three, knowing just what to say at the right moment.