On the acknowledgments page of her new short story collection, Florida, Lauren Groff thanks Florida, where she lives and which she calls the "sunniest and strangest of states."
Strange this collection certainly is, but sunny? Not so much. These are Southern Gothic-inflected tales of hurricanes, humidity and sudden sheets of tropical rain that create sinkholes and send snakes, raccoons and palmetto bugs writhing and running into living rooms for shelter.
When the sun does shine, it inflicts damage, "alligator[ing]" people's skin, causing headaches and "bleaching" memory "to dust." Even when some of Groff's characters flee Florida, they carry its dank atmosphere within them, just as John Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost carries hell.
Florida is filled with brooding, inventive and often moving short stories — and I say this as a critic who has admired the architectural complexity of Groff's work in the past but also found it somewhat chilly.
Here, she is more generous about opening up her character's emotional lives. In Groff's trademark zigzagging storytelling style, revelations ricochet between pages — and sometimes even within single sentences. Here, for instance, is the paragraph-long opening sentence of the very first story, "Ghosts and Empties," in which a restless wife and mother cuts to the core of her marriage and her own depressed spirits:
I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.
You sense from the way that sentence ends that there's a lot more going on under the surface of those words. That woman reappears in several of the stories, among them "The Midnight Zone," where she is marooned with her two young boys in a secluded hunting camp as a panther prowls outside, and the final story, "Yport," where she drags her sons along with her to France to research Guy de Maupassant, a writer she comes to realize she hates. These stories, so filled with anguish and rueful humor, are among the standouts in this collection.
There's also a doozy of a hurricane tale called "Eyewall," in which Groff clearly has a blast finding inventive ways to describe wind and rain; and a nightmare tale called "Above and Below" that should be required reading for anyone considering graduate school in the liberal arts. In it, a female grad student falls into an economic sinkhole when she loses her teaching fellowship. Soon, she is living in her station wagon, dumpster-diving for food. In one particularly grim scene, she spots a former student on the street:
She'd been a frightened, silent thing who'd earned her C-. No matter how hard she was drilled, "its" and "it's" had eluded the girl. Tonight, if she and the girl came face-to-face, the girl would look through her former instructor, not seeing her in this worn, dirty woman; and she, whose words had once lashed, would have nothing to say.
Fortunately, the story doesn't end there, and Groff, through her own acrobatic style, attests to the benefits of a firm grounding in grammar and vocabulary. Lots of things go south fast in the stories collected in Florida — like marriages, careers and the weather — but throughout, Groff's gifts as a writer just keep soaring higher and higher.