Monday, April 23, 2018

The Dark Side of the Sunshine State: Florida by Lauren Groff

A sharp, quirky eye turned toward Lauren Groff's new collection Florida, by a native of the Sunshine State.  ♦
"Feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.” This is the Florida that the tourists never see: dark and damp, reeking of danger. This is the Florida that Lauren Groff, best-selling author of Fates and Furies, describes in her forthcoming story collection, aptly (and simply) titled Florida. Her collection of eleven stories transcends a single character, time, or place. The unifying thread, however, is in the air the characters breathe, the heat of the state pulsating in every sentence, and Groff’s dynamic storytelling abilities. Her voice is at times soothing, yet startling. It’s a portrait of the Florida Groff has called home for the past twelve years and the Florida I have loved forever.

As someone who was born and raised in Florida, these stories and their characters strike a familiar chord. Florida is typically host to transients and transplants, but my family has lived in Fort Lauderdale for the past seventy years. My grandmother has watched dirt roads become major highways and cities constructed seemingly overnight. When the narrator of the sixth story quips that “Sarasota barely qualified” as part of Florida, I knew exactly what she meant and laughed silently to myself, having made the same joke before.

Mold, humidity, and alligator swamps are elements every Floridian must come to terms with. A fourteen-foot gator once wandered into my friend’s backyard, a regular occurrence when you build housing developments in the Everglades. In “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” a lonely boy, Jude, grows up at the edge of a swamp that “boiled with unnamed species of reptiles,” at a time when “air conditioning was for the rich.” His father, a herpetologist, keeps snakes in jars and alligators in the bathtub. At some point, each of his pets wander down into the swamp only to be swallowed whole, a consequence too real to imagine.

Florida is often prone to hurricanes; many have ravaged her shores and flattened her land. Rising water temperatures will fuel stronger hurricanes, experts suggest. Just last year, my mom packed up photo albums and family heirlooms, my cat and our two dogs, and headed north as Hurricane Irma barreled toward our home, predicted to be a Category 4. I sat in my dorm room, thousands of miles away, trying to imagine what kind of devastation I would return to. The storm switched tracks at the eleventh hour and lost steam after making landfall in the Caribbean.

In the fifth story of the collection, a woman forgoes evacuation and instead rides out the storm, watching as a branch “the size of a locomotive [...] falling languorously down, the wet moss floating outstretched like useless dark wings.” The woman feels the power go out, a feeling any Floridian that has been through a hurricane can vividly remember, a feeling Groff captures so poetically: “Time erased itself from the appliances and the lights winked shut.” Until Irma, the most destructive storm to ever hit Florida was Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Sixty-one people died and thousands were left homeless. The damage from the storm was estimated in the billions. Residents who did not evacuate are still haunted by the memories.

In “Dogs Goes Wolf,” two sisters find themselves alone on a fishing island with nothing to eat or drink, their only company being a mean, fluffy white dog and buzzing mosquitoes. The older sister tells stories to distract the younger one. Florida becomes a frontier and survival a necessity through which, Groff illuminates the bonds of sisterhood. In “Ghosts and Empties” and “Midnight Zone” motherhood is explored through a recurring female narrator, a mother and wife, conflicted as she tries to answer questions bigger and burlier than the animals that lurk outside her door.

The seventh story in the collection, “Salvador,” is the only story that does not take place in Florida, but in a place equally as hot and filled with temptation: Brazil. A woman named Helena is staying in Salvador, having the “funds to spend her time wherever she wanted.” Helena is “in that vicious pool of years in her late thirties,” and unmarried. Her character looks after her mother, “too perennially ill to live alone.” The imagery is similar to the other stories in the collection: “a storm smacked loudly at her, as if raging that she was still dry and safe when all the rest of the world was vulnerable.” Groff invokes a similar sentiment as with many of her stories in the collection. It is one of self-exploration and understanding, and learning to let go of familial and societal expectations.

Florida is an exquisite achievement by Groff. She tells each story with startling precision and accuracy not only in describing my beloved state, but also in illustrating the complexity of the human condition. Her lyricism stays with you long after you have finished the last page. The book is due to hit shelves this June.

  • About the Author
    Alexis Metz is a sophomore English Literature and Creative Writing double major at Miami University. In 2015, she attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio at the University of Iowa, where she spent two glorious weeks in Iowa City learning from accomplished writers and graduates of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In her free time, Alexis enjoys eating Mexican food and Facetiming her cat, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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