In “When Romeo Wakes,” Siluwé takes us into a disturbing and hallucinatory post 9/11 world where a middle-aged man who once stalked a young, handsome, basketball-playing Puerto Rican “just a toe or two this side of legal” finds himself again in the man’s presence - several years later - after a botched break-in during nuclear Armageddon. The narrator, Danté, has hunkered down is his Jersey City apartment and spends his time amid the chaos and utter destruction that Nuclear War has wrought in a sad, lustful soliloquy to his “Romeo.” And, yet, oddly, this sad, romantic, obsessive character – with his equally diminutive pet Chihuahua, Taco – forces us, like the question that presages this incredibly powerful short story, to ask: “In an apocalyptic nightmare, can obsession keep you sane?” Mr. Siluwé seems to be asking if, once the veneer of civilization is stripped of its propriety, can extraordinary behavior (in this case, the sexualization of an obviously moribund young man) be justified as a means of survival? And aside from the philosophical underpinnings of “When Romeo Wakes,” we have Mr. Siluwé’s confident prose:
Removing your sneakers and socks first and then the jeans, I pause, savoring the sight of those soft tangerine hairs that begin on your upper thighs and end just above your ankles. I peel the briefs down. Your pinkish dick is sleeping beneath its thick red bush. I love that bush. I feel dizzy. Wrapping the chain around again, I pull it tight and padlock it in place. I hope it won’t bruise your cute little ankle. I kiss it before I can stop myself.
The next story, “Breeding Season,” concerns two, young boys whose mutual interest in fish belies a disheartening analogy on the survival of the fittest. Danté, our obsessive narrator, is introduced to Ray, “a frail, silvery-haired, albino gecko – with the cutest little accent – that I planned to take home and ask my mom if I could keep.” One afternoon, Danté notices the behavior of one of the fish:
Only one of [Ray’s] male Jewels was pummeling a female mercilessly because she wasn’t ready to breed. She finally dashed behind the filter tube, pale, fins shredded, chunks torn from her body…I suggested that Ray separate them, but he didn’t believe in getting involved: survival of the fittest and all that.
Later, encouraged by Jamaican rum so potent, “It’ll fuck you up,” they begin a mock photo shoot – Ray, the increasingly salacious photographer, Danté the increasingly obedient and aroused subject – which ends with an explosive sexual liaison akin in its physicality and forcefulness to the ‘shredded fins’ of the female Jewel fish. But the story ends – like Darwinian survivalism – with victor and vanquished and the discomfiting sense that what makes our sexual-slash-emotional survival necessary is anything close to the peaceful, happy coexistence of fish in a fish tank.
“Beneath Paradise” is the sprawling, spiritual anchor of “Dancing with The Devil” and is also the longest of the five short stories at almost 100 pages. Danté, our recurring narrator, and Malik, a minor character from “Breeding Season,” reemerge as love interests in this tale of spiritual struggle between two Jehovah’s Witnesses who, while testing the limits of truth in religion, determine “what they’re turning into.” Constrained by the dogmatic teachings of a religion that only knows one truth, Danté, a repressed, articulate, and reluctant disciple and his love interest, Malik, stumble through a sex-glazed odyssey – including a wonderful Dante-esque scene at a sex club in Manhattan – where the teachings of the church force one, Malik, into the role of a sad but conventional victim of the marital, hetero-normative ideal while the other, Danté, in a brilliant final scene, is left wriggling though a church bathroom window – bloody and bruised – to escape the confining, repressive church teachings that literally leaves one physically scarred. “Beneath Paradise,” with hints of that iconic study in flesh and spirit, “Narcissus and Goldmund,” examines both the hypocrisy of pious infallibility (one of the holiest characters, Sister Simon, is brutally raped then dies) and the damage such systematic rigidity foists upon those who seek religion but on their own terms:
The banner over the podium served as a constant reminder: Preach, preach until you drop. My eyes crept down to Father Freeman, his silver hair contrasting with his dark, leathery face He was asking for strength in these last “dark days.” I knew he’d go on and on before we’d be allowed to exhale “Amen.” The scent of death was in the air. My tie was too bright. I glanced around the sea of bowed heads as I always did during long, boring prayers.
“Beneath Paradise” is a riveting critique about the intersection between an impossibly high code of morality and human failing.
The final two stories, “Pretty Young Gangsters,” a cautionary tale about the risks and rewards of “coveting youth and beauty,” and “Dancing with The Devil,” a painful and mordant eulogy on love (“But mostly, yeah, mostly I wanted to take the Devil up on his offer and dance again, Just once more. Every molecule wanted to cop more shit, so José and I could find that cloud again, that pink, purple and crimson cloud where we’d float, kiss, fuck, and fuck.”) round out this impressive debut. Taylor Siluwé explores the cracks and crevices of life on an edge that both repels and fascinates its readers with sumptuous prose and demonstrates that even in the littered dank halls of inequity, love strangely blossoms. “Dancing With Devils” is a stunning first work of fiction.
(“Dancing with The Devil” by Taylor Siluwé. 205 pps. Release by Chuma Spirit Books, LLC. $11.99 Retail.)