Author: John Brandon
Published: July 2010 by McSweeney’s, 224 pages
Date Read: March 2012
First Line: ”Toby took his tacos outside and crouched on a curb.”
Genre/Rating: Literary fiction; 5/5 spoonfuls of Cracker Barrel pity-grits whipped at a self-righteous religious girl’s face
Review: I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while. McSweeney’s books are often quite good – they seem to choose books with a quirky, melancholy sensibility that I play well with. This one, happily, was one of the best I’ve read this year, and I’m so glad my library (which seems to think indie books don’t especially need to be in stock a lot of the time) finally had it when I searched.
Citrus County isn’t the Florida you see on the travel brochures. It’s the damp, wet, swampy Florida. Where – oh, I love this – “(t)here were insects, not gentle crickets but creatures with stingers and pincers and scorn in their hearts.” Where everyone seems to not have moved happily, but to have ended up. It’s the dumping site for people.
We meet Toby, a junior-high boy so filled with longing to be – something – that it makes your back teeth just ache with it. He wants to be known. And in Citrus County, being bad is as good as being known. We meet Shelby, the good girl with the stereotypical crush on the bad boy. We meet Mr. Hibma, their teacher, who longs to be anything but ordinary, and makes a plan to lift himself from obscurity, but possibly at the cost of his soul.
A child goes missing. A relationship starts. A crime is planned. Letters are exchanged across the world. A man boils hemlock in a shed in hopes it will help him retain his sanity. A girl comes to the realization that she’s going to have to be the hero of her own story.
Everyone is wandering in the lush tropical climate. Everyone is lost. Everyone is yearning and wanting something just out of reach.
The writing is beautiful. Brandon has such a poetic turn of phrase that reading his work is like biting into a tart green apple. He’s one of those authors who is very deft with details – he’s a master chef, and he knows when to sprinkle them in to add flavor, but not to overpower the story. One of Mr. Hibma’s co-workers, Mrs. Conner, is “a grammar Nazi with bronze-colored hair who wore sandals that were too small and caused her toes to spill out onto the floor.” When Toby’s uncle unexpectedly makes him breakfast, “the meat patties were arranged so they were slightly overlapping, like in an advertisement.”
There’s a mystery between the lines, as well, a fill-in-the-blank quality that I admire. You could feel the heat and the humidity on your own, without it being spelled out for you. You could taste the sweat, the desire, the despair.
Strangely, there’s not a single character you especially root for. There’s no one you want to triumph, especially. There’s no one you’re cheering for, hoping they win. Everyone’s too real. You’re just hoping they all survive, that they come out the other side with their sanity intact.
I devoured this book. I couldn’t put it down. I resented times I had to be doing other things because they were times away from it. I had to know what happened. I had to know how it turned out. I had to know if things were all ok for the residents of Citrus County, because, in a strange way, it felt like they were people I knew.
I think that’s the mark of a successful book, don’t you?