Real Life by Brandon Taylor


It was the pleasure Tony experienced in recognizing the setting of this book as his own alma mater that drew me to the book. What kept me reading is a little less certain.

I did keep reading, despite thinking that the graduate student life of these friends does not resemble the real life of graduate students as I know them. But then the “real life’ referred to in the title is life outside their rarified esoteric life in their laboratory.

The main character is Wallace, a gay black man from Alabama whose his poverty-stricken, abusive childhood could not have been more different from the life in graduate school in the upper midwest. His cohorts are almost all white and he suffers from their assumptions:

The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that 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. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment.

And at the same time, Wallace has conflicts with a woman he regards as favored by the head of their lab and when he declares to her that he is not a misogynist, she tells him he doesn’t get to define what misogyny is to a woman and calls him an asshole. The disagreements these folks have lack subtlety.

Perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of the book for me is the sadistic/masochistic sex between Wallace and another graduate student named Miller who at one point declares, “I am not a faggot.” I wondered when one of them would land in the ER.

At one point the furtive Wallace and Miller ducked into small study room in the library with a door that could be locked. I would be quite surprised to find a library with a room where occupants could not been seen with a door that locks. Windows are a feature of study rooms in institutions I have known.

Brandon Taylor, Real Life, Riverhead Books, 2020, 329 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library and from Amazon.

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