(I wrote this review of Lauren Groff’s collection of short stories, “Florida” for the Gainesville Sun.)
Lauren Groff disdains quotation marks in “Florida.”
I’m sorry, I mean in Florida.
At first I found this to be disconcerting. As a newspaper guy, quotation marks are my life.
But in reading Groff’s new collection of short stories it quickly becomes evident that punctuation anarchy can be wonderfully, decadently liberating.
They are like annoying little double fence slats that seal a gated golf community off from Florida’s wild, prickly, sticky morass of swamps and scrubs and sandspurs and things that slither, gnaw and go bump in the night.
Groff, of course, is Gainesville’s most celebrated writer in residence. Her last book, ”Fates and Furies” was praised by no less than former President Barack Obama. And it is fitting that this transplanted Yankee in Paradise would begin “Florida” with an account of her own anger-dispersing nighttime strolls (stalks?) through and around her Duckpond neighborhood.
And what a nocturnal journey. Hers is an exotic college town infested by grad students “who heated beans over Bunsen burners.” A refuge for black swans and a rapacious otter. Where elderly nuns dwell in ever-shrinking numbers.
There is a homeless couple who occasionally sleep under her house (“we tried to walk softly because it felt rude to step inches above the face of a dreaming person.”) And an obese young man on a treadmill, and a “fiercely pale” woman with a Great Dane “the color of dryer lint” and a “shy, muttering” woman who collects cans, and a man who “hisses nasties” outside a bodega with barred windows
Yeah, that’s so Gainesville. That’s so Florida.
“I have somehow become a woman who yells,” Groff declares in the book’s very first sentence. And this single allowance sets the narrative for all that follows. Because her Florida is no pale plastic Disney concoction. It can be a fuming, fearful, glowering tempest-tossed geography. A land of both breathtaking beauty and “soul sucking heat.” Where summer is a “slow, hot drowning,” and air conditioners eat snakes, and a concussed woman may find her disembodied consciousness transported into the restless panther that endlessly circles her cracker cabin.
An “Eden of dangerous things.”
And Groff packs up this torrid Eden and takes it along wherever she and her characters go. What exactly is the point of fleeing to Paris, only to discover that “it has become somehow Floridian, all humidity and pink stucco and cellulite rippling under the hems of shorts”?
Yeah, we are all Florida now.
Groff’s “Florida” is a Tim Burtonesque fairy tale in which a feckless mother abandons two little girls on a deserted island with wild monkeys and a dog who doesn’t like children. It is a woman’s almost mystical transformation from cloistered teaching assistant to beach bum to homeless Tent City resident to, finally, housekeeper in a communal “squat” on the edge of the Prairie – where she becomes one with the snakes and the gators and whatever it was that crawled across her throat.
It is a tempest tossed house in which a woman visits with the ghosts of the men in her life while patiently waiting for the hurricane to carry her away. Where an algorithm-ruled recluse speaks in nano-bites to the wife who almost killed him.
Speaking of ghosts, Groff herself admits to being haunted, even possessed, by two dead men. In “The Flower Hunters” a newfound obsession with colonial-era naturalist William Bartram makes her forget her motherly Halloween duties, discovering “she is most definitely in love with that dead Quaker.”
And then there is Groff’s much darker affair with Guy de Maupassant, which can only end badly on a cold French beach after she finally admits to herself that her one-time muse was “morally repugnant.”
Two more things about “Florida.”
One is that Groff is obsessed with the storm of life. It is the common thread that runs through each tale. Rain doesn’t fall in her “Florida”. It crashes to the ground, it envelops you in a wall, it arrives on the breath of a hurricane. “Worse then being in the storm was knowing what the storm was doing.”
And the other thing is that Groff is an absolute miser when it comes to parsing out words. “Florida” is a quick clean read because her prose is stark, precise and to the point. Like a distaff Hemingway (a comparison Groff would likely find as odious as to de Maupassant) she never says anything in 15 words if she can say it in 10.
“One perfect orange.” This for the woman who sought respite in Salvador from “The long dry years spent in the wilderness of her mother’s illness.”
“Florida” is Groff’s rumination on writing and marriage and motherhood and friendships and “the dread” and an Eden that stings and awes in equal measure. And if you are looking for a moral to this story, perhaps it is simply this:
“Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”
Yeah, that’s so Florida.