"They lived as if the fate of the very universe were perpetually at stake and in their hands," muses an erstwhile member of the "Anarchristian" punk collective brought to begrimed life by Justin Taylor in his ambitious and flawed first novel, The Gospel of Anarchy. The same might be said about nearly every gnarled branch of punk's family tree (chat up a straightedge dude sometime), but usually with the sneer of someone who's been there, done that, gotten over it and discovered alt-country.
It's refreshing, then, that Taylor's imagining of a Crass-friendly Christianity isn't just another lame excuse to score post-patch points, but a reverent test of punk's productive energy. Just how far can a book of big ideas go on punk rock's biodiesel fumes? To infinity and beyond, it turns out. The problem is that Taylor is much better at worrying over guttersnipe minutiae—half-smoked rollies and soggy dumpster scores—than illuminating the muddled religion practiced by a clutch of refuseniks who find a departed comrade's journal-cum-exegesis and see transcendence in its poetry. Taylor is brave enough to take this spiritual awakening seriously, but as his cutting riffs on porn and Dead Moon devolve into metaphysical slogs, The Gospel of Anarchy becomes nearly as confused and humorless as a kid reading Maximum Rocknroll for the first time.
That said, it's heartening—thrilling, even—to watch a young talent take risks like this, and I'm positive Taylor will write something truly great one day. So here's hoping Blake Butler's There Is No Year, with its gray fun-with-margins pages and Lynchian weirdness, doesn't hog too much of the spotlight as these two writers tour together. Because even though Butler's despairing take on domestic horror might look like a high-wire act (footnoted commas!), it's a beginner's routine, all smoke and mirrors and safety nets. Breathtakingly compact and unsettling as Butler's sentences can be—a beehive "chock with mazy tunnel," a mother's face "engraved with home expression"—there simply aren't enough of them to go around. Butler's fractured tale of one sad family's haunted home relies on ostensible "strangeness" instead, a nightmare repertoire of expanding rooms and rebellious reflections that is too familiar to cause any lasting damage. There Is No Year is a marvel of book design, but one man's bad dream will almost always be the same man's dull tale, no matter the amount of typesetting tomfoolery.
GO: Blake Butler and Justin Taylor read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, April 11. Free.