Book Review: ‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor

In his debut novel, Real Life, released Feb. 18, Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum Brandon Taylor follows the story of Wallace, a science graduate student in the Midwest who is in search of what he really wants. The book is set over the course of just three days, and it’s filled with betrayals, new romance and self-discovery.

Taylor paints his narrative with a palette of themes that include relationships, grief and trauma. At the start, readers see Wallace several weeks after his father died, believing that he is doing fine, not experiencing the expected stages of grief. That feeling seems to stem from the fact that his upbringing was spotted with tragic moments, many with his parents at the center.

Wallace is a recluse and tries to be alone much of the time, but after he is roped into spending time with his estranged fellow grad students, he gets into both high-tension drama and romantic entanglement.

Wallace finds his studies, friends and life in question when he is faced with trying to find what he really desires out of them all. Throughout the novel, Wallace keeps his emotions in check, fearing that if he loses control of them, it could threaten his place as the sole African American in his graduate program.

Real Life tells a truly distinct story about a gay black man from Alabama who attempts to escape his trauma by way of academia. With this fresh perspective, the novel finds its strength in showing the way people try to distance themselves both from their past and from others.

Wallace’s journey is colored by drama, betrayals, but most of all, the feeling of wanting to live a “real life.” The theme comes up frequently in the novel, with the grad students often lamenting how much easier things would be if they didn’t have a life in academia and instead worked and lived like “normal people.”

The characters’ tense exchanges in Real Life always begin with mundane social interactions, before building to a dynamic, cruel argument. The exploration of cruelty is one of the most remarkable elements of the novel — Wallace describes friendship as an exchange of cruelty between two people.

Wallace’s world view is clouded by past trauma, and the novel shows how that causes him to go down a road he never would have otherwise. Real Life is a compelling social drama adeptly complemented by Taylor’s prose. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for his next novel.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 279.

Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV »



Summer Programs 2020

Get 150+ local restaurants delivered to your door in the Iowa City & Cedar Rapids areas!

Don’t let other people’s opinions win.

Vote for your favorite people, places and events in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area! In a time when local businesses need our support more than ever, your vote will send a little love to the places that make our community special. And don’t forget to tell us why—the best comments will be published in our December Best of the CRANDIC 2021 issue! Voting ends September 30.

Read the Best of the CRANDIC issue, on stands now

The Future is Unwritten

You look to Little Village for today’s stories. Your sustaining support will help us write tomorrow’s.


$10/mo or $120/year
The cost of doing this work really adds up! Your contribution at this level will cover telephone and internet expenses for one month at the LV editorial offices.


$20/mo or $240/year
$240 is enough to cover one month’s costs for sending out our weekly entertainment newsletter, The Weekender. Make a contribution at this level to put a little more oomph on your support and your weekend.


$30/mo or $360/year
(AUTO-RENEW) connects eastern Iowa culture with the world. Your contribution at this level will cover the site’s hosting costs for three months. A bold move for our boldest supporters!

All monthly and annual contributors receive:

  • Recognition on our Supporters page (aliases welcome)
  • Exclusive early access when we release new half-price gift cards
  • Access to a secret Facebook group where you can connect with other supporters and discuss the latest news and upcoming events (and maybe swap pet pics?) with the LV staff
  • Invitations to periodic publisher chats (held virtually for now) to meet with Matt and give him a piece of your mind, ask your burning questions and hear more about the future plans for Little Village, Bread & Butter Magazine, Witching Hour Festival and our other endeavors.