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Review: Just Pervs by Jess Taylor

February 4th, 2020     by Marta Balcewicz     Comments

Photo: Angela Lewis

When I was a teenager, I was introduced to the books of Charles Bukowski. I had spotted a shelf-full of them at the East Village apartment of someone whose taste and lifestyle I admired. The first Bukowski novel I sought out was Women. Out of all the titles I’d seen on the shelf, this one stood out and seemed the most attractive. I assumed that a book with “women” for a title would offer, at its core, a nuanced study of, well, women. I assumed women would figure prominently in Women, in a way that would appeal to me, a young woman reader. I took Women out of the central library in Mississauga and took it to my bedroom to read.

I can still point out the exact page where, during my first attempt at reading it, I put Women down. Years later, I returned to the book, finished it, appreciated it with a new, more critical lens. But that first time, around age 17, I’d hit my limit upon reading the physical descriptions of two girls, only a couple years or so older than me, visiting the apartment of the curmudgeonly narrator-protagonist they admired, a man more than twice their age, with whom they’d go on to have a lot of sex. The narrator’s words, descriptions, what he wanted from his visitors, didn’t correspond with my own gaze and my own thoughts about women. I appreciated the frankness with which the narrator laid his desires out on the page with no shame, no holding back. But the problem was that I—and the whole world, really—was already familiar, too familiar, with the desires of a heterosexual older male who self-proclaims himself as perverse. I wanted to read about something else already.

Jess Taylor’s new short story collection, Just Pervs (Book*hug Press), is a kind of antidote, the book I wish I’d taken out of the central Mississauga library branch that day. One fairly obvious reason for this is that Taylor, a bisexual woman writing about women’s desires, is likely to offer a lens more appreciated, more at home, and familiar to certain readers. The protagonists of Taylor’s stories are for the most part young women (a notable exception is the 80-year-old narrator of “So Raw You Can’t Sit,” a meditative piece about aging and pleasures foregone in younger years). Taylor’s characters deal with messy one-night sexual encounters, boyfriends who disappoint, women who are admired, fantasized about, and seem unreachable, birth control, polyamory, and pregnancy tests purchased at Shoppers Drug Mart.

The second way Just Pervs counters my early experience with a book heavily focused on unapologetic sexual desire is that sex—the yearning for it, its clumsiness, its dangers and fallouts, the humour and grossness of it—doesn’t dominate Taylor’s plot lines. The stories do not lean on these low-hanging fruits; they do not put the prime focus on sex and women’s sexual desire, singling them out as odd or unusual enough to be at the centre, but allow them to run like a thread through the collection. While at first blush the sex can be the most entertaining or attention-grabbing component of the stories, the subtexts quickly surface, getting to the heart of the tales—female friendships, coming-of-age growth and change, finding sufficiency in oneself, the toils of fluctuating self-esteem, the secrets that are kept even in the closest of relationships.

“The Puberty Drawer” is a story that could serve as the perfect representative of the collection. A “puberty drawer,” we learn, is the narrator’s term for the gross and embarrassing secrets we keep, the stash of stories we don’t want to tell others, the things we did as fumbling teens. Yet after a bit of light prodding, the narrator is happy to pull an item from the drawer, and to share it with her group of friends—and the reader. The item—the story—is indisputably written in a way to elicit laughter. It is about the narrator’s attempts, as a young girl, to masturbate with the help of a pointy-nosed stuffed dalmatian. The narrator speaks about her early yearning for a satisfying sexual encounter, which her stuffed animals ultimately seemed unable to deliver.

When one of the narrator’s friends comments on how the narrator is willing to share pretty much anything, this feels like the potential response of the book’s readers as well. The characters in Just Pervs, through their puppet-master, Taylor, unflinchingly share pretty much anything with us, eroding the idea that any of the stuff being shared should be taboo or hidden away.

The story that most blatantly addresses taboo is “I Moved Out When I Caught Him With the Dog.” The title suggest a veering into new territory, away from the other stories’ careful and nuanced critiques of how women’s perfectly natural sexual desires are cast as taboo. Yet in the story, Taylor immediately shifts focus from what the title “I Moved Out When I Caught Him With the Dog” so vividly conjures in a reader’s head. The scene alluded to in the title is only a jumping off point for a study of a woman dealing with the aftermath of a betrayal—a betrayal that’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around—and the way it prompts her to examine her own desires and mistakes. The protagonist’s reference points include two other women who have been betrayed—the sister with whom she now lives and who was left by her partner, and a stranger who randomly attacks the protagonist on the street, accusing her of being her husband’s mistress. Like most of the collection’s works, this story, we come to see, deals predominantly with relationships and what we want versus what we get out of them. The titular husband’s betrayal—an act that is unquestionably and for good reason taboo—allows the protagonist to explore her own needs, the kinds of things that Just Pervs has all along been telling us are honest, necessary, and nothing to be ashamed of.

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