MOST OF THE 11 stories in Florida, Lauren Groff’s new collection, are as fine and beautifully crafted as any fiction she has written. Eight unfold in the title state, a “shifty” place that “constantly contradicts herself,” as Groff, who’s lived there more than a dozen years, put it in a recent New Yorker interview. But her idiosyncratic depictions of Floridians at home — and in France and Brazil — somehow manage to reveal her characters’ universality.
Groff writes about family, mothers, and single women, often adding a hint — sometimes more than a hint — of sex. Despite their realism, these stories often read like tales and modern myths buttressed by biblical allusions and imagery of snakes and other monsters. Ghosts visit and storms threaten, but Groff’s characters live on despite loneliness and despair. They rejuvenate themselves after personal calamities and mini-apocalypses (sometimes with help from a few bottles of wine).
The best story in Florida, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” takes its title from a John Donne sonnet. Originally published in Five Points and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2014, the story depicts the life of Jude from boyhood through college, his parents’ deaths, and marriage, and then on into old age.
Born in the late 1930s, Jude lives with his unnamed mother and father at the edge of a swamp in the center of Florida. A herpetologist, the father prefers snakes and other reptiles to his wife, son, and most humans. Jude and his mother fear and hate him, and she sings hymns to keep the scaly creatures out of the house. Father may not be a scaly creature, but he’s certainly a callused and evil one: when mother is pregnant and without her glasses, she accidentally steps into the tub with a three-foot albino alligator that father has stored there. Singing hymns proves a poor strategy for keeping serpents out of the house, and it certainly won’t ward off the father. So mother runs off, but she returns in a week and Jude’s sister is born dead.
Later, while Jude’s father flies cargo planes in France during World War II, mother kills all the snakes in the house and moves Jude 90 miles to the beach. Pelicans and dolphins — imagery innocent and heavenly, or at least benign — replace the evil snakes and alligators. With her brother-in-law’s help, mother opens a bookstore that Jude loves. She reads Shakespeare, Neruda, and Rilke to him.
After four years, father returns from the war and takes Jude and mother back to the swamp home, which refills with snakes. Mother submits to father’s tyranny, eats very little, and sits in a porch rocker while Jude speaks “the old sonnets” to her. Throughout, Jude and his mother suffer at the hands of father, but they undergo brief respites and resurrections as Jude tries to find peace in his corner of the world.
In “Ghosts and Empties,” an unnamed mother goes for winter evening strolls to walk off her anger while her husband watches their sons. The reason for her anger is ambiguous, which lends mystery to a story that manages to be optimistic. Her Northern Florida neighborhood, which has become infected by “white middle-classness,” is “imperfectly safe”: there was recently a rape, and a mauling by a dog, and the town is still shaken by a murder 10 years past. Throughout a harsh winter, she observes the neighbors in their “domestic aquariums,” and she’s astonished by the way people live. By March, she imagines herself a character in a Buster Keaton movie who somehow survives as the house falls down around her.
In “The Midnight Zone,” another unnamed mother has decided her family will vacation at a remote cabin. Soon, her husband leaves to tend an emergency at an apartment building he owns, and she is left alone with their young boys, whom she thinks of as “two petri dishes growing human cultures.” A good mother, she finds her children fascinating and prefers to take adventures with them.
Her maternal instincts are tested after she falls and suffers a concussion while trying to change a light bulb. She wraps her bleeding head in duct tape and gauze. Even though the boys call her “Mommy,” she’s not sure for a while who they are and refers to them as “big boy” and “bigger boy.” As she slowly begins to recognize them as her sons, she worries that she can’t take care of them. The wind, a character itself, compounds her situation:
[I]t was in a sharpish, meanish mood. It rubbed itself against the little cabin and played at the corners and broke sticks off the trees and tossed them at the roof so they jigged down like creatures with strange and scrabbling claws. The wind rustled its endless body against the door.
After her husband returns, mother calls herself a “passive Queen of Chaos with her bloody duct-tape crown.” Despite her self-deprecating humor, it is through her ingenuity and tenacity that she has won her struggle against her weaknesses and the storm, a symbol of her inner turmoil.
In “Eyewall” and “Salvador,” two more women, one middle-aged and one approaching middle age, face storms that reflect their internal conflict. In “Eyewall,” which was collected in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, the narrator remains on her Florida acreage as a hurricane approaches even though the residents have been urged to evacuate. The house may be old, but she figures “it has lived through other storms” both real and metaphorical, just as she has. As she opens another bottle of wine, the hurricane raging around her, she is visited by three ghosts: her husband, her college boyfriend, and her father, each conjured by fear, loneliness, and alcohol.
Helena, the central character of “Salvador,” has been caring for her perennially ill mother in Miami for years, so she doesn’t have much of a social life. The isolation is wearing on her:
She had been lovely at one time, which slid into pretty, which slid into attractive, and now, if she didn’t do something major to halt the slide, she’d end up at handsomely middle-aged, which was no place at all to be.
Helena’s sisters give her money and offer to take care of their mother for a month, so Helena goes wild and slakes her sexual thirsts with strangers, especially blond businessmen and “drunk boys half her age.” After a ferocious storm coops her up for days, she ventures out into the tempest to the bar of a nearby hotel. But the rage of the storm is so massive — even greater than her desires — that she can’t make it the 50 feet back to her hotel. She winds up seeking shelter in the grocery store of a man she worries will rape her.
Groff’s stories are exciting, her language rich and evocative. Night doesn’t just follow day, “time will leap forward and the night will grow more and more reluctant to descend.” Her characters don’t worry, they are filled “with bleach and fret.” Fights “look like slow-dancing without music.” Her prose burns with these hot coals of exuberant writing, but it seldom overheats, even if the occasional cliché (“teetering on the precipice”) singes the page.
Groff creates characters so memorably real that it’s tempting to gossip about them, but it’s hard to gossip about nameless people. The absence of proper names suggests that the author is indicating Every Mother types, but it’s mildly annoying when major characters are missing this key identifier. Still, her characters manage to be both singular and universal despite their anonymity, their Lear-like inner conflicts exemplified by natural disasters. No matter what near-tragic circumstances confront them, however, they endure, survive, and even thrive, bolstered by optimism and tenacity.
Groff’s stylistic eccentricities and peccadilloes — the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, the unnamed characters, the odd cliché — are venial sins. She is one of the best writers in the United States, and her prize-winning stories reverberate long after they are read. In past years, the rare short story collection — Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, James Alan McPherson’s Elbow Room — has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Florida should be in the running next year.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, has written for the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, InfoWorld, and other publications. He maintains a blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/.