If you’ve never heard of the “Florida man” phenomenon, here’s a summary: the citizens of Florida people have become notorious for unusual crimes that often make headlines, thus spurring the internet to create a meme that has given Florida a reputation for the weird. The stories in Lauren Groff’s new collection Florida sit so perfectly within this context that it’s no surprise she lives in the state with such fame, absorbing the mythos and infusing her writing with characters fit for tabloids. The eleven stories in this collection not only capture this cultural identity, but they also overflow with imagery so powerfully tangible that it’s hard to believe the humidity and rainstorms aren’t truly escaping from the page to touch you.
Set mostly in the Sunshine State, Groff writes Florida into the plot as a character unto itself. There is an undeniable agency as hurricanes rip through towns and catapult people, trees, and buildings through the air. The state is oppressive in its heat, demanding to be felt and feared. And most of all, it is remembered and longed for, by every character—especially those who try to escape.
One such story is filled with characters not even physically in Florida, but already being pulled back by forces outside of their control. “For the God of Love, For the Love of God,” is set in France, and is one of the stories told in third person as it jumps from a variety of characters. The uneasy breaks and unprepared shifts in perspective are meant to mirror the disjointed lives outside of Florida. The menagerie of characters in this story are painfully awkward and inappropriate, highlighting the Floridians in a rare moment of normalcy. And even in France, Groff tears open the sky to burden the setting with rainstorms and remind them that nature is always in charge.
This is a common thread throughout: the struggle of characters against nature, and then ultimately nature forcing an inward reflection. In “Eyewall,” the inward reflection slides all the way to hallucination, as the female protagonist waits out a monster hurricane and begins to see her dead loved ones in the house with her. First, her late husband scolds her for drinking the reserve wine. Then her college boyfriend comes tumbling in from outside, covered in mud and laughing as if taunting the storm. As the house begins to flood, she retreats to the upstairs bathroom where she encounters her deceased father and refuses to open her eyes until everything has stopped. When she finally emerges to find her home nearly destroyed, she finds her companions gone, and a lone chicken egg, perfectly balanced, on what is left of her porch. Such a stunning ending has never accompanied the end of a hurricane more perfectly.
The protagonist should have left in “Eyewall,” but her stubbornness is what propels the tension. Groff allows her female characters to be difficult and unconventional, all while struggling, failing, and doing what they want—even when it’s wrong for them. Many are mothers with a strained relationship to motherhood, showing ambivalence toward the position that is striking and refreshing. “Ghosts and Empties” follows a mother who must frequently walk her neighborhood, even with the reports of cougars and rapists lurking, to escape the suffocation back home. “The Midnight Zone” is about a suspiciously similar mother who suffers a concussion while on vacation with her two sons, turning into the victim rather than the nurturer. And in “Dogs Go Wolf,” the mother is never on the page, but she has abandoned her two daughters to a cabin on an island, revealing the resiliency of both the sisters and the surrounding swamp.
These stories, each a bit stranger than the last, are deftly accomplished through Groff’s perfect command of prose. Even if you’ve never barricaded yourself against a storm raging off of the ocean; even if you’ve never stranded yourself in a canoe in the middle of a marshy swamp where treacherous alligators wait, and then lost the oars to row yourself back to shore; and even if you’ve never jogged down the streets in winter and felt the heavy hand of humidity and heat on your shoulders, Groff will make you believe you’ve experienced them all.
“After a storm,” she writes in “Snake Stories”—a story I feel might have perfected the vignette style—“the sunlight in this town pours upward as though radiating from the ground, and the sudden beauty of the stucco and Spanish moss is a hard punch at the center of the heart.” As an exploration of Adam and Eve and the serpent weave in and out of this narrator’s thoughts, Florida exerts itself once more, the ever present reminder that no plan or good deed is safe when constructed in its midst.
If Florida needs a guidebook for the uninitiated traveler, Groff’s Florida can be a shining light. The aesthetic is sometimes hard to take in, but it is never apologetic. Here are the steadfast residents and their broken lives, and here are the ways they defy the place while simultaneously embracing it.
Florida by Lauren Groff
Published June 5, 2018