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Real Life
Cover of Real Life
Real Life
A Novel
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A FINALIST FOR THE 2020 BOOKER PRIZE
AND THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE JOHN LEONARD PRIZE
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS' CHOICE


“A blistering coming of age story” —O: The Oprah Magazine

Named a Best Book of the Year by The New York TimesThe Washington Post, New York Public Library, Vanity Fair, Elle, NPR, The Guardian, The Paris Review, Harper's BazaarFinancial Times, Huffington Post, BBC, Shondaland, Barnes & Noble, VultureThrillist, VICE, SELF, Electric Literature, and Shelf Awareness
A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.  
 
Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.
A FINALIST FOR THE 2020 BOOKER PRIZE
AND THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE JOHN LEONARD PRIZE
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS' CHOICE


“A blistering coming of age story” —O: The Oprah Magazine

Named a Best Book of the Year by The New York TimesThe Washington Post, New York Public Library, Vanity Fair, Elle, NPR, The Guardian, The Paris Review, Harper's BazaarFinancial Times, Huffington Post, BBC, Shondaland, Barnes & Noble, VultureThrillist, VICE, SELF, Electric Literature, and Shelf Awareness
A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.  
 
Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.
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  • From the book

    1

    It was a cool evening in late summer when Wallace, his father dead for several weeks, decided that he would meet his friends at the pier after all. The lake was dimpled with white waves. People coveted these last blustery days of summer before the weather turned cold and mercurial. The air was heavy with their good times as the white people scattered across the tiered patios, pried their mouths apart, and beamed their laughter into each other's faces. Overhead, gulls drifted easy as anything.

    Wallace stood on an upper platform looking down into the scrum, trying to find his particular group of white people, thinking also that it was still possible to turn back, that he could go home and get on with his evening. It had been a couple of years since he had gone to the lake with his friends, a period of time that embarrassed him because it seemed to demand an excuse and he did not have one. It might have had something to do with the crowds, the insistence of other people's bodies, the way the birds circled overhead, then dive-bombed the tables to grab food or root around at their feet, as though even they were socializing. Threats from every corner. There was also the matter of the noise, the desperate braying of everyone talking over everyone else, the bad music, the children and dogs, the radios from the frats down the lakeshore, the car stereos in the streets, the shouting mass of hundreds of lives disagreeing.

    The noise demanded vague and strange things from Wallace.

    There, among the burgundy wooden tables nearest the lake, he saw the four of them. Or, no, more specifically, he saw Miller, who was extraordinarily tall, the easiest to spot. Then Yngve and Cole, who were merely tall, and then Vincent, who just scraped under the bar of average height. Miller, Yngve, and Cole looked like a trio of pale, upright deer, like they belonged to their own particular species, and you could be forgiven, if you were in a hurry, for thinking them related. Like Wallace and their other friends, they had all come to this Midwestern city to pursue graduate studies in biochemistry. Their class had been the first small one in quite some time, and the first in more than three decades to include a black person. In his less generous moments, Wallace thought these two things related, that a narrowing, a reduction in the number of applicants, had made his admission possible.

    Wallace was on the verge of turning back-he was uncertain if the company of other people, which just a short time ago had seemed somehow necessary, was something he could bear-when Cole looked up and spotted him. Cole started to flail his arms about, as if he were trying to elongate himself to ensure that Wallace could see him, though it must have been obvious that Wallace was looking directly at them. There was no turning back after all. He waved to them.

    It was Friday.

    Wallace went down the half-rotten stairs and came closer to the dense algal stink of the lake. He followed the curving wall, passed the hulls of the boats, passed where the dark stones jutted out of the water, passed the long pier that stretched out into the water, with people there, too, laughing, and as he walked, he glanced out over the vast green water of the lake itself, boats skimming its surface, their sails white and sure against the wind and the low, wide sky.

    It was perfect.

    It was beautiful.

    It was just another evening in late summer.

    An hour before, Wallace had been in lab. All summer he had been breeding nematodes, which he found both boring and difficult. Nematodes are free-living, soil-dwelling microscopic worms, only about a millimeter when fully grown. His...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 4, 2019
    Taylor’s intense, introspective debut tackles the complicated desires of a painfully introverted gay black graduate student over the course of a tumultuous weekend. Wallace, a biochemistry student from Alabama at an unnamed contemporary Midwestern university, discovers his experiment involving breeding nematodes ruined by contaminating mold. Though distraught and facing tedious work, he reluctantly meets up with friends from his program to celebrate the last weekend of summer. He discloses to them the recent death of his estranged father, who did not protect him from sexual abuse by a family friend as a child. Wallace is perpetually ill at ease with his white friends and labmates, especially surly Miller, who unexpectedly admits a sexual interest in Wallace. Over the following two days, Wallace and Miller awkwardly begin a secret, volatile sexual relationship with troubling violence between them at its margins. As Wallace begins to doubt his future as an academic and continues to have fraught social interactions, he reveals more about his heartbreaking past to Miller, building toward an unsettling, unresolved conclusion between the two men. Wallace’s inconsistent emotional states when he’s in Miller’s company can be jarring; the novel is at its best and most powerful when Wallace is alone and readers witness his interior solitude in the face of the racism and loneliness he endures. Taylor’s perceptive, challenging exploration of the many kinds of emotional costs will resonate with readers looking for complex characters and rich prose. Agent: Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, DeFiore and Company.

  • Kirkus

    January 1, 2020
    A young gay black man comes of age at a moment when American culture feels bitter and closefisted. Wallace is a graduate student in the Midwest, desperate for his genetic experiments on nematodes to be successful. He'd also like some semblance of a relationship with Miller to work out, never having had a boyfriend before; meanwhile, Miller isn't certain he's gay. Having just arrived from Alabama, Wallace has a lot of whiteness to adjust to. His friends are white; so are his colleagues. He notes the "tasteless, strained, diluted flavor of white people food." "Microaggression" is a term anyone paying attention to race and gender issues in America has heard, but in this flinty debut novel, there's nothing micro about them, as when a Machiavellian female colleague who may be sabotaging Wallace's experiments tells him that "I have to prove myself because you and men like you are always counting me out" and then goes on a dizzying bender of benighted cultural appropriation. (The fact that it feels unresolved whether she is his saboteur is a fault in the novel.) Or when a French grad student alludes to Wallace's "deficiencies," i.e., the facts that he grew up black and poor. Taylor deserves admiration for making it so clear how racism and homophobia feel: "When you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth," for example. The novel, by a staff writer at Lit Hub, has generated a lot of buzz, and its unflinching forays into our culture wars are cleareyed. Beyond its status as a testament of political injustice, though, it deserves accolades for its insights into the ways trauma hollows out a person's soul. The novel ends on a note of hope as Wallace and his new friends are toasting one another by the lake at the end of summer, but, as one in a tradition of searing novels about gay men, it's better read for its chill: "Is this all his life is meant to be, the accumulation of other people's pain?" Wallace wonders. Telling the truth, bleakly.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2020

    DEBUT Wallace is a fish out of water, and he knows it. A gay black man from Alabama in a Midwestern university graduate biochemistry program peopled with white and Asian American students, Wallace is awkwardly unique and alone. The problem? So is everyone else. Through language wizardry, essayist and short story writer Taylor's debut novel encapsulates in one weekend a life that is by turns alien, welcoming, and violent while it seems all too painfully real. Wallace is in and out of relations with his small circle of friends and enemies, and his "real life" is one of unrelenting angst, his relationships strained, including a violent one with a man who insists he is not gay. The faculty head of his program begins to wonder whether Wallace should even be there. He hates it all. VERDICT As brilliantly written as the novel is, the constant conflicts, unyielding anguish, and pages of tortured ruminations that anchor the narrative in "real life" might wear out the less-than-committed reader. It's a relief that Taylor concludes with a hopeful flashback to Wallace's matriculation, when friendships are new and promising. A demanding if rewarding work. [See Prepub Alert, 8/5/19.]--Michael Russo, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from November 1, 2019
    It's a summer weekend in a Midwestern university town and biochemistry grad student Wallace is just weeks past losing his dad, and moments past losing weeks' worth of lab data. When his friends?who are all white and mostly fellow biochem students?find out about his dad, they can't believe Wallace is okay (he didn't go back to Alabama for the funeral) and desperately want to comfort him. This tension, just one of the burners Taylor ignites in the slowly unfolding opening scene, simmers for the book's duration and deepens as readers get to know Wallace and his highly honed abilities of self-preservation. When he and his friend Miller, who's straight, consummate their attraction and pierce one another's tough outer shells in the process, neither is quite ready for what pours out: buried cruelties that, while completely different, bond them. Taylor translates Wallace's thoughts and conversations with a rare fluidity and writes breathlessly physical scenes, all of which adds to the charged experience of reading his steadily exciting and affecting debut; it's an experience in itself. He works a needle through Wallace's knots of race, class, and love, stopping after loosening their loops and making hidden intricacies visible, before neatly untying them.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2019, American Library Association.)

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