Religious youth groups have long been a breeding ground for early, small-scale rebellion—a first kiss, sip, or joint. Less common is a collective that embraces faith in equal parts with sex, substances, and politics. The mix of defiance and belief championed by the anarcho-punks of Gainesville, Florida, in Justin Taylor’s debut novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, is called plainly Anarchristianity. Every Sunday, its founders hold a church service at their communal home followed by a night of debauchery, often ending in a drug-fueled orgy. Throughout the novel, it remains unclear who in the congregation is there to pray and who is there to party.
Taylor, a Brooklyn-based author raised in Florida, writes dreamy recollections of swampy youth, as collected in last year’s short-story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. Taylor’s fantasy Florida, in his stories and new book, has kids considering radicalism and God with equal seriousness. They gather not in traditional churches with top buttons done or shirttails tucked, but in backyards, with filthy jeans and ripped T-shirts, bearing tattoos and untamed armpit hair.
Set in the summer of 1999, Gospel begins with the St. Augustine-style “Confessions” of David, a bored University of Florida student so obsessed with amateur Internet porn that he can only wriggle free of his own grip by drowning his laptop in the bathtub. After halting his chronic masturbation and quitting his soulless job, David is ripe for rebirth. When he encounters an estranged childhood friend dumpster-diving for dinner, David agrees to take a bite of a soggy, discarded falafel sandwich, a eucharistic ritual he does not understand in the moment, though it ushers him into life at the punk house called Fishgut.
Inside, there’s Thomas, the cynic and most compelling of this bratty brood; Katy, the pious matriarch; and Liz, the devoted lover, but with an expiration date. The Fishgut collective’s political and religious values are vague, inspired by their anointed, the disappeared prophet Parker. When Katy, the ascendant leader, finds Parker’s left-behind journal after a magical dream, the faithful distribute selections from the unintelligible writings as the Good Zine, the bible of their Anarchristianity.
But in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor muddles the alluring subject of disaffected youth with ambiguity as to whether he means to mock his characters or endorse their anti-capitalist paradise. By the end, the novel fails to convince on matters of character, politics, or faith, the story deviating into a half-serious manifesto, all ultimately unfulfilling.
The group’s bonds splinter or congeal based on their convictions, with the true believers edging out the skeptics, dampening the narrative by allowing the devout to preach. Excerpts of the Good Zine’s scripture, as printed in Gospel unadorned, are a mess of platitudes and uninspiring ideology that Taylor lets go on too long, even if he means to deride the chaos. “Joy is a better form of prayer than prayer, but prayer is also a better form of joy than joy,” Parker writes in one of his Seven Theses. Decoding who’s in on the emptiness of the gospel, or willing to ignore it in the name of belonging, feels futile.
Though he idealizes vividly unreal group sex and cooperative self-sufficiency, Taylor also undermines the same pose of would-be transcendence he builds up. Like the worst of religion, both the author’s scorn and support are too dogmatic.