Riverhead Books 2018, 288 pp., $27
Lauren Groff’s outstanding new collection of stories, Florida, is so much more than “just” a story collection, and so much more than “just” about Florida. Rather, in ten dazzling stories and a heartbreakingly beautiful novella, it manages to deliver the power of several novels combined: a moving narrative across five fictions of a dread-driven mother of two boys, ages four and seven; several complicated and complex stories of struggling momentary expatriates who have temporarily managed to escape the “hellmouth” of Florida; and epic tales of downward spiral that, while rooted in Florida, really could happen—and this is a compliment—anywhere. A handful of these stories are so ambitious and cinematic they could easily become major motion pictures, and all of them are wrought with Groff’s excellent ear for a visceral language and eye for the magical and transformational detail, whether found in nature or humanity.
The mother stories are artfully laced throughout the collection, occurring both in first-person and third-person, and defined by the character’s considerable concrete and abstract sense that things are not right in the world and that something terrible might happen, indeed will happen, in a not-too-distant future that could very well be the present. “Ghosts and Empties,” which opens the collection, is an impossibly rich story that catalogs the mother’s nightly walk away from her husband and sons and through a North Florida neighborhood “imperfectly safe.” While it might close on the observation that truly we are all insignificant, it opens up masterfully throughout with observations and evocations that stun and linger: air conditioners “crouched like trolls under the windows,” amid a “swiftness of youth, these gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” Several tales later, “The Midnight Zone” offers the mother as preoccupied and alone with the two boys twenty miles from civilization, only to take a dizzying fall and awake to the dangerous aftermath of a severe concussion. Smart, sharp and lyrical, it’s also both a beautifully external and internalized narrative that will take your breath away with its honesty, exposure, and vulnerability. “For a half breath,” the mother observes, “I would have vanished myself.” In “Flower Hunters,” which is a kind of tune-up for the later novella, the mother (always nameless) remains at home on Halloween while her husband escorts the two sons. Alone, she muses about the eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram, her best friend who is taking a break from her, the sinkhole that has appeared at the southwest corner of her home, and how in general “she is exhausting to everyone.” Grimly honest, sober, she’s a misanthrope who loves only four people, but now in third-person perspective, the camera shifts to an angle that seems only to expose her failures and her fears more and more. “Snake Stories,” which returns us to first person, is an impressionistic and rich story that has snakes on the fringe, and at the center, the eye-popping and brief admission of serious violence done to a stranger, and in the distant past, to the mother’s own self.
This is followed immediately by “Yport,” the novella at the book’s end, as rich as any novel and also extraordinary in the depth and breadth of its dynamic portraiture. It is an artful and deeply satisfying narrative about the constancy of dread amidst an extended French “vacation” that the mother takes with her two boys, and the moments that occur, whether willed or not, that lighten her internal burden. The mother, now revealed to be a novelist, comes starkly into focus, then shifts in the light of her sons. It’s another tale both internalized and yet deftly populated by, among others, two horrific British parents, the smelly guy who manages the rental apartment, the mean carousel lady, the neighbors who babble nastily about Syrian immigrants, and the ghosts of Guy de Maupassant and his brother and his mother and several of the people he tormented in one form or another. “She doesn’t belong in France,” the mother ultimately learns, “perhaps she never did; she was always simply her flawed and neurotic self, even in French. Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”
The other stories placed perfectly among these “mother” stories sometimes have the daring of fables and other times have the hard edge of a relentless realism. “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” offers a man’s entire life, ending in a rescue by the wind that allows his escape from “the hungry dark.” The raw narrative ambition results in a story that can feel both real and imagined at the same time: “Jude’s promise was unfulfilled, the choices made not the passionate ones. Jude had been safe.” “Dogs Go Wolf” is a strange and haunting story of abandonment in which two nameless sisters, also four and seven, are left on an island in grim, uninhabitable circumstances. Even the long aftermath of survival is evoked as harrowing, in a future when “the little sister met a man who first gave her love, then withdrew it until she believed the things he believed,” so that the big sister, now a lawyer, can only feel “an ugly wish spread in her like ink in water: that she and her sister had stayed on the island all those years ago; that they’d slowly vanished into their hunger until they turned into sunlight and dust.” Later, “Eyewall” follows a divorced woman in her forties who outlasts a monstrous hurricane. In first-person lyric, she is visited by the three important male ghosts of her past—her ex-husband, her college boyfriend, and her father. The magic of the one egg at the end, “whole and mute,” seems to want to say more than it does, though certainly it says enough.
“For the God of Love, for the Love of God” is a powerful, edgy, slyly cinematic story about two couples in France in the middle of summer who are filled with hatred and self-loathing, the four-year-old child who internalizes that, and the twenty-one-year-old niece who judges it and who can see them for the “poor fucking people” they are. Showcasing Groff’s range and depth, it’s a deliciously raw story, capable always in an instant of becoming something else, larger and scarier than it already is.
To say “Salvador” and “Above and Below” round out the collection is like saying beef rounds out steak frites. In “Salvador,” the late-thirties caretaker of her own mother gets a month off every year to be her other self, whatever that is, only to find that “the caretaker of others…had become who she was.” Yet, this is anything but a static story. Set in the Brazilian city of Salvador, rife with grit and magic and real and imagined danger, satisfying and resonant, articulating a quiet and yet profound despair. Meanwhile, “Above and Below” is an epic story of the downward spiral of a defunded graduate student, left by her boyfriend to face the world literally penniless and alone. She endures, only to experience “the long and terrible birth of her daughter, years later.” It’s a truly remarkable tale, taut with narrative tension that never releases, because that is what abject poverty is like.
Florida is a delightfully unpredictable and vast and fearless book, with much to transport, get lost in, and admire. The reader finds worlds similar to or reflective of a certain American state and a certain American state of being, encased in a present both ominous and surreal, and dreading a future impossible to know but almost certainly damaging. This is constantly riveting and beautiful work.
Fred Leebron has published four novels and over fifty short stories. For years he was the Bookshelf Advisor to Ploughshares, and has also reviewed books for the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Provincetown Arts, and other venues. Awards for his writing include an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize.