Bob Moyer finds that there’s much lurking below the surface in Lauren Groff’s view of Florida – and most of it is menacing.
Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer
FLORIDA. By Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. 275 pages. $27.
According to Laura Groff, that is. Her Florida is not the glowing, fun-filled home of orange juice and theme parks. Instead, the inhabitants of her vivid stories about the Sunshine State face danger and disaster at every turn. The snakes in her house at the edge of the swamp drive the mother “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”” to abandon her son. In “Snake Stories,” Groff warns us “Walk outside in Florida, and a snake will be watching you…” A mother doesn’t come back from a boat trip to get her little girls on an island off the coast, and they lead a feral life in “Dogs Go Wolf.” During a hurricane-force storm, the narrator’s chickens in “Eyewall” are blown apart, and a book with her name in it ends up in Georgia. Threats abound in Groff’s world.
It’s not just the outside world that threatens here. If the state of Florida doesn’t get you, the Florida state of mind will. Groff’s genius — this book will stick with you long after you finish it — is the inner world that parallels these external threats. Her husband, her father and a boyfriend, all dead, come to visit the narrator of “Eyewall,” leading her to conclude “Houses contain us; who can say what we contain?” The sinkhole at the corner of the house in “The Flower Hunters” doesn’t loom nearly as large as the black hole of anxiety that opens up before the narrator, as she alienates friends and neglects her children. The mother in “Ghosts and Empties” has become “a woman who yells,” and because she doesn’t want to be a woman who yells, “whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces,” she goes walking every night through the streets, to quiet her demons and dazzle us with her observations. Other mothers bring their anxiety into play alongside their desperate love, like the one in “The Midnight Zone” who declares, “I would not make dinner, I would not keep schedules, …never ever,” but tries “…to push my love for my sons into them where their bodies were touching my own skin.”
It’s the mother in “Yport,” the longest story, who makes the clearest statement about what goes on underneath the surface of these stories. She leaves Florida for France, supposedly to research Maupassant, but she reveals the real reason early in the story: “Surely, her bad pet dread would never think to look for her here.” But it does. It arrives amidst dozens of empty wine bottles, and her bored son, “…something terrible but she can’t look at it, she needs to look away, if she looks at it, it will come even closer to her…she can’t let it, all alone in this cold place with two small boys to care for.”
Some have criticized these stories for being so bleak and lacking hope and resolution. Yes. Groff’s Florida is not a place to live, but it’s a great place to visit. You’ll see things you’ve never seen before, and remember them for a long time.