When I was growing up in Florida, we called it God’s Waiting Room, but not because we thought it was heavenly. The elderly retired in Florida, “waiting” for death, and we kids who joked about it were waiting, too. Not for death, but to leave for older, darker, nobler, safer states. I say safer because for a certain kind of person Florida can feel dangerous. It’s spread too thin over spongy limestone, sprawling in every direction except up or down. Everything is overexposed; the horizon oppresses; the ground might even swallow you whole. There are no hills or valleys or basements—no cuddling natural borders, no places to hide. Things and people spill out and stick together like cracked eggs in this gun-shaped frying pan. Leave if you can, but Florida will stick; Florida will follow.
In fact, you can never really leave the Sunshine State, as Lauren Groff intimately apprehends in her excellent collection, Florida. In these 11 stories, Florida is not necessarily the setting or the subject, nor the sordid punch line it’s often made out to be. Instead, Florida is the thing that Groff’s fly-wing delicate characters can’t escape.
That doesn’t keep them from trying. All the stories Groff tells here are, at some level, chronicles of flight. Women walk through the particularly creepy streets of Gainesville or the palmettos of its surrounding prairie, trying to escape what they hate about themselves or what they love too much. Men row into tea-hot ponds to evade the twilight of their own mythmaking. Others wade into swamps to cockfight with snakes, stimulating the bravery they otherwise lack. Mothers holiday in France or Florida’s tangled forests, fighting to escape the fact that they love their babies more than they can protect them. Children, young or grown, cloy for freedom from their parents, living or dead. All of them quake with trepidation about living just one more day: They love life too rapturously.
“Ghosts and Empties,” the first story in the collection, prefaces these themes and introduces patterns that repeat throughout the book. Like most of the stories to follow, it exists entirely in the mind of its protagonist. Here, it’s a mother who has “somehow become a woman who yells” and takes up an evening ritual of walking through the charmingly tarnished Duck Pond neighborhood of Gainesville. She intends the walk to exorcise her rage, stoked from “reading about the disaster of the world…millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious.” Instead, she becomes a witness to the tiny but unceasing changes occurring around her, “gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” Her escape fails, forcing her to concede that to be alive is to overflow, and to accept that “nothing is not always in transition.”
Failed flights of this sort form the narrative spine of Florida’s stories: Like this first protagonist, most of Groff’s characters fail to get too far from who and where they no longer wish to be. They are (deliberately) too empathic, handicapped by their hypersensitivity to beauty and filth, and they tend either toward hedonism or hibernation but cannot find a place between. Language, ironically, disappoints them; they hunger for touch in order to know the truth of things. In one way or another, they are all willfully globed in one-way glass, observing the world but utterly unable to communicate with it, let alone exist in it—perhaps for the best. Groff designs characters that embody the ambivalence of loving life itself while being terrified to live.
The second story, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” most richly embodies this kind of character in the form of Jude, who “was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.” His father is an abusive, racist herpetologist at a thinly veiled University of Florida; his mother, a well-read woman worn out like a paperback by the man she married. The father grinds Jude down, too, disgusted by his oversensitivity. Words are no use to Jude, for whom “knowledge of another person was ungraspable, a cloud. He would never begin to hold another in his mind like an equation, pure and entire.” Though his mathematical brilliance takes him far away up North, he finds his way back to the quaint little bowl of Gainesville. Eventually, he loses his hearing inexplicably, forced to communicate even more through the body.
Florida completely beguiles the body: It’s a place of flesh memories, and Groff is at her most delightful when conjuring Florida’s tingles and miasmas and gummy heat as they stimulate the skin. For Groff, Florida’s bodies are sites of congealment, quivering at the threshold of combustion. They fascinate her, and her prose exquisitely decomposes all emotions and experiences into their sensory components. Even when the characters crack out of their flesh, they hover in surreal planes that remain richly embodied, as in “The Midnight Zone.” Here, a concussed mother is marooned in a secluded cabin circled by a Florida panther, flowing in and out of consciousness, waiting for her husband to come back (men, in these stories, are for the most part either fleshy pillows, fickle vipers, or too far away to even matter). Her little boys fail to keep her awake, and she disassociates, “as if the best of me were detaching from my body.” Her spectral form glides into the humid night, where the “great drops from the tree branches left a pine taste in me.”
Though the emphasis on embodied experience certainly charges the stories erotically, it does not make them prurient. Instead, they have the bewildered innocence and wide-eyed wisdom of a child who sees things exactly as they are—as bad as they look, or more beautiful than older eyes can be bothered to see. Even the adults are terminally un-grown-up, perpetually resenting and yearning for parents who are dead, absent, or oblivious. Jude hallucinates the ghost of his father scolding him for living a life that was far too safe, too passionless. In “Salvador,” the narrator weathers a hurricane in the storeroom of a dubious man’s bodega, “praying, not knowing if she was praying to her mother or to either of the gods.” In “Eyewall,” the narrator confers with her own dead father in the midst of a hurricane, curled in a bathtub. In some cases, Florida itself seems to facilitate the communion, filled to the brim as it is with ghosts and failed ventures.
“This land, he told her, was full of living twits and unsettled spirits, both,” Groff writes in “Above and Below,” which follows the downward spiral of a graduate student denied further funding for her research. “The spirits were loud and unhappy, and filled the place with evil. All them dead Spanish missionaries and snake-bit Seminoles and starved-to-death Crackers and shit.” Such are the refuse of a state that has been abandoned, orphaned, shuffled about, and sliced apart for almost 500 years, longer than any other state.
For most of that history, Florida has been a feral, lawless place: Until the late 1960s, the state legislature met only every other year, for a single 60-day session, writes historian Gary Mormino in Florida: Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams. It’s a state that’s been ruthlessly cultivated by capital: phosphates poured into its aquifers, concrete into its swamps. And yet it markets itself as a place of natural beauty. But Florida is not a “land of contrasts,” and Groff avoids this flimsy and inaccurate conceit. Instead, she incarnates Florida’s grotesque continuity, warping the line between past and present, spirit and flesh, flourishing and decay.
On account of all that collision, a hunger for shelter throbs in many of the stories. It takes the form of a sinkhole that becomes a bell jar for a mother on the brink; a bomb shelter where imagined nuns weather a fiery apocalypse; an empty tub in a windowless bathroom, which, as any Floridian knows, is the safest place to hide during a hurricane. But this search for sanctuary feuds with a love of freedom elsewhere in the collection, sometimes within the very same story. Both Jude and the protagonist of “Above and Below” chide themselves for clinging too much to safety, and the dazed, casually alcoholic mothers who lead most of the stories resent that they are too incompetent to take the risks they crave.
We are not safe and we cannot pretend to be, and if Groff has a political objective with these stories, it’s that we as a species have so tightly cocooned ourselves that we cannot address the dangers at hand. Environmental catastrophe looms over Florida, amplifying the anxiety that crackles beneath its stories. Global warming, the death of coral reefs, and the gyres of plastic choking the oceans keep Groff’s characters awake at night. As Floridians, their concerns are well-founded: Their home is uniquely vulnerable to environmental and wildlife degradation, a situation made worse by the corrupt network of old guard conservatives that perennially governs the state. Things will get worse before they get better: Already the third-most-populous state, Florida, for all its weirdness, increasingly attracts immigrants in search of sun, real estate, and low taxes.
All of this newness collides with the Southern gentility of North Florida, the Cracker pastoral of the interior, the pastel ostentation of Miami, the crypto-Alabaman of the panhandle, and the Sun Belt suburbia of Tampa and Orlando. They remain as discrete as the bands around a coral snake. Florida remains placeless, inchoate—an easy target for those who would rather be someone else somewhere else, like Grant in “For the God of Love, For the Love of God”:
…as soon as he realized he would go up to Michigan alone, leaving behind the incontinent old cat he hated, the shitty linoleum, the scrimping, the buying of bad toilet paper with coupons, Florida and its soul-sucking heat, he felt light. A week ago, when they drove up to the ancient stone house framed in all those grapevines, he knew that this was what he wanted: history, old linen and crystal, Europe, beauty. Amanda didn’t fit. By now, she was so far away from him, he could barely see her.
Florida is a place that is easy to hate. Its errors have not yet earned the dignified charm that gilds the flaws of places civilized in earlier centuries. The piss and malfunction of the subway are, in this regard, a price to be paid for all New York has to offer. Florida’s scum is, alternatively, a source of buyer’s remorse. For people like Grant, who is like many people who grew up in Florida, the place is as shallow as its soil, which isn’t even really soil but the gray of ceiling-fan lint that peels off in long, fuzzy worms. It is not a place to put down roots. It is a place to leave.
I’ve tried, and I thought I had succeeded until I visited my favorite beach last summer, near the town where I grew up. I saw gummy grass poking through white sand off the Gulf coast, like mildew in the caulking of a tub. It wasn’t normal; I wasn’t normal, if only because I cared. Something had changed—the water, perhaps, poisoned by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or the beach itself, which is bound to be remade eventually in the image of its boardwalked counterparts on the Atlantic coast. How dispiriting to see this place change, and how much more dispiriting to care—and so much more deeply than I ever wanted to.
“Of all places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself,” Groff writes in “Yport,” the final story. I cannot forget these sentences, which are somehow simultaneously hilarious and shattering, ominous and reassuring. It is this ambivalence that pervades Florida’s stories of the anxious, awkward love the Sunshine State kindles and keeps lit. Groff has grasped the true grotesqueness of Florida, an “Eden of dangerous things” spliced with stinking bodies, living and dead. In her hands, Florida as state and state-of-mind becomes an alembic, cohering these discrete stories as perfectly as if they were written in one sitting, though most of them were published years apart. Florida is so much, perhaps too much. Florida is just enough. In this collection, Groff’s powers transform that glut of vitality into something startlingly precarious and, even to a forsworn Floridian like me, something startling and precious.