Florida as it has not been seen before
FLORIDA By Lauren Groff
If you’ve ever driven across southern Florida from Miami to Naples, you probably took the 80-mile stretch of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley, which means you went through the Everglades and saw the ominous sign “Panther Crossing.” Despite what you may have thought, the sign’s purpose is not to protect motorists from these beautiful creatures, but to protect the panthers, an endangered species, from being hit by speeding cars. Nonetheless, just seeing the sign is enough to give most people the willies.
Florida may be called the Sunshine State, but that’s not the quality that interests Lauren Groff. She’s far more taken with the dark side, the one that produces the willies, the fears, the dreads, the heebie-jeebies, call it what you will, that bedevil all her characters in “Florida,” which features a large predatory cat stalking across its cover.
Prior to this book, Ms. Groff, a highly talented prose stylist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and the Atlantic, wrote three novels and another collection of short fiction, which brought her to the finals of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, plus other prizes. In 2017, Granta magazine named her “one of the Best Young American novelists of her generation,” and this year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction.
On reading “Ghosts and Empties,” the first of this book’s 11 short stories, my feeling was that it carried too strong a scent of the classroom. So I checked, and, sure enough, Ms. Groff has an M.A. in fiction (from the University of Wisconsin), but the more I read, the more that scent evaporated as I got caught up in her luminous prose and the often bizarre predicaments of her characters.
The first story’s unnamed narrator confesses to “a hunger for grief,” telling us that during the day, she “… can’t stop reading about the disaster of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious. I read and savagely mourn, as if reading would somehow sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it.”
The character tries to shake these existential blues by going for a run or at least a very long walk, no matter the hour; but she fails to see that these aren’t the blues, they are part and parcel of the human condition. And Ms. Groff is very good at implying this fundamental problem.
When you read the first sentence of the second tale — “Jude was born in a Crackerstyle house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.” — you suspect he will not live a happy life, and you are right, mostly. In “Dogs Go Wolf” two young girls ages seven and four are abandoned on an island by their mother and a man not their father. Eventually the girls run out of food and even their dog deserts them, preferring the company of the dark woods to theirs. There’s a flash forward in this scary Brothers Grimm-like tale that suggests they survived, or, to borrow Faulkner’s verb, endured. But in the end one is not sure.
“The Midnight Zone” relates the equally grim — Grimm? — account of how a fiercely independent wife attempts to stay by herself for two-anda-half days with the couple’s two young boys in the wilderness hunting camp they’ve rented for spring break when the husband is called back to the city (read civilization) by an emergency. Outside a panther prowls, but the woman is sure she can do it. The first day is magical, but on the second she falls and seriously injures herself. How will they survive — will they survive?
Lauren Groff loves to put her characters in harm’s “zero-at-the-bone” way (there are snakes aplenty in this book) and then describe their predicament with riveting attention to the details of their peril. A girl from a poor family who has long envied the life of her rich friend suddenly learns her friend is bankrupt; a woman stays in a house when all her neighbors have fled the hurricane; and another woman whose best friend has “taken a break from her” is stuck at home on Beggar’s Night with inadequate noncandy treats.
All of these stories take place in — or represent reactions against — sunny Florida as seen in travel brochures. The first line in the book’s acknowledgments section reads: “Thank you, Florida, sunniest and strangest of states …”
You may never have looked at Florida in a negative way before, but after reading this ultimately captivating book, you will probably never look at it the same way again. John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).