Florida as it has not been seen be­fore

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By John Greenya

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).


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