Our Florida, Hers and Mine

June 20, 2018 | 6 books mentioned 8 min read

1.
U.S. Highway 1 stretches the length of Florida, linking Key West to Jacksonville and hurtling beyond Maine. Southbound from the state line over 550 sun-soaked miles, drivers experience the Floridian landscape in geologic rewind: northern moss, central muck, and southern swamp. At the tip of this clay-and-shell empire, U.S. 1 leaps off dry land, the humid air thins to breeze, and as drivers cross the seven-mile bridge, they cruise over the same sea their ancestors crawled out of long ago. If newness foretells the future, then Florida’s relatively recent emergence from the ocean parallels its relatively recent dominance of the country. It was Florida that shot a rocket to the moon, ushering in the modern age. Since then, it’s been Florida that’s decided our elections. This year, we’ve all noticed that as go Florida’s youth, so goes our discourse. (It’s not a coincidence that blood won’t dry in the swamp where nothing else can, either.) Yet as parents will attest, newness is stalked by threats—even if only imagined. What’s most vulnerable is most precious and most in need of protection. But can’t threats be beautiful? Azaleas are gorgeous, but they’re toxic, too.

coverI’ve been thinking about this since finishing Lauren Groff’s Florida, the author’s new story collection. In 11 pieces, Groff explores her adopted state, probing the ways its inhabitants live with it rather than in it. They always have. Residing in Florida means appreciating its beauty while keeping a safe distance from its threats, and threats abound in Groff’s stories. Mostly there’s the threat of the natural. Characters are stalked by big and feral cats. One encounters a falcon, “huge and dangerous even when dead.” Another opines that when you “walk outside in Florida…a snake will be watching you.” How many reptiles are there? There are a lot of reptiles. There are bellowing bull gators and croaking frogs. There are so many reptiles that they transcend Reptilia: tree vines “look like snakes”; a man has “alligatored” skin; a hen has a “lizardy eye.”

But that’s Florida, isn’t it? In no other state is the line so blurred between the natural and the manmade. Think of an alligator in the pool. These threats range from small to apocalyptic, from imagined to existential. Largest of all looms climate change, which overwhelms most of Groff’s characters. In “Snake Stories,” a mother is worried about “a man [who] had been appointed to take care of the environment even though his only desire was to squash the environment like a cockroach.” In “Ghosts and Empties,” a mother walks around her neighborhood, worrying about the “disaster of the world,” and confesses that “it’s all too much.” This paralytic force is revisited in later stories with near-identical phrasing: A young girl watches idly as a mosquito draws blood, and “it was all so much,” so she lets it suck.

Yet another mother is said to be “no longer frightened of snakes, she who is frightened of everything” because instead “she is frightened of climate change, this summer the hottest on record, plants dying all around.” The narrator lets us know this woman’s unrelenting anxiety makes her “exhausting to everyone,” and as readers, we can see why, even if she does have a point. That woman is not alone. In “Yport,” a story of a mother abroad with her two children, the protagonist is terrified of mass shootings, destabilizing humanitarian crises, and most of all “the coming climate wars”—“she can’t stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans.” She thinks her anxiety is hidden, but we see how it affects her children whom she so desperately wants to protect. “If she could, she’d spend the day in bed.” Hear, hear.

To too many, the threat of climate change lacks immediacy, and so Groff’s obsession with the subject is vital—if at times overwhelming. The setting, too, is significant. Nowhere in the country faces more urgent threats from climate change than Gulf Coast. But worry is paralyzing, as that character getting bit by the mosquito knows. What does it mean to live in a threatened world when the world itself is threatening? Is this sense of imminent end why Florida inspires so much apocalyptic writing?

coverThat so many of Groff’s characters in Florida are mothers is fascinating. While Groff’s last novel, Fates and Furies, was focused most of all on marriage and was about resisting the temptations of Florida and the influence of one’s mother—Lotto cut off from his mom, a former Weeki Wachee mermaid—it’s easy to read Florida as Groff’s simultaneous take on motherhood and succumbing to Florida’s pull. After all, motherhood demands the same kind of cognitive dissonance that living in Florida demands from its ecologically minded residents. Ethically or philosophically, what does it mean to worry about ecological ruin while living in a community that shouldn’t exist? Is buying flood insurance in Miami an admission of guilt? Should anyone live in paradise? There is an essential calculus to modern parenthood: Is the world so broken that we shouldn’t bring children into it? Parents protect their children long enough for them to inherit the mess of their ancestors. Developers sell beach houses before the sea covers their roofs. In Florida, Groff’s characters probe these questions, even if only subconsciously. In so doing they interrogate environmentalism, motherhood, and responsibility—or better yet, what it means to be complicit.

2.
coverMotherhood and Florida are also the twin fascinations of Christine Schutt in Florida, her jewel of a novel relaying a lifetime in memories. Readers meet the protagonist, Alice Fivey, just before her mother is institutionalized for depression, manic episodes, and anorexia. Her father has died, and, separated from her mother, Alice lives a “sleep-over life” with her aunt and uncle bouncing around the Midwest and Tucson. In short vignettes, we learn the family’s secrets, and we watch Alice mature. We learn early that Alice’s mother is obsessed with the idea of “her Florida,” a sort of stand-in for the dream life they’ll never attain. It was Alice’s father who introduced her to the idea:

In Florida, he said it was good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors. In the Florida we were headed for the afternoon was swizzled drinks and cherries to eat, stem and all: “Here’s to you, here’s to me, here’s to our new home!” One winter afternoon in our favorite restaurant, there was Florida in our future while I was licking at the foam on the fluted glass, biting the rind and licking sugar, waiting for what was promised: the maraschino cherry, ever-sweet every time.

Later on, Alice’s mother constructs a foil-lined “Florida box” in which she can lie down and approximate the state’s temperature. She speaks wistfully of rebooting the family’s life in Florida, of going off to “our Florida, hers and mine.” She explains away her absence from Alice’s life by saying that she’s been in Florida off and on. Over time, “Florida” as a concept fascinates Alice, influenced by her mother, who dreams of its unreachable but tantalizing charms. Paradise lies just beyond reach, unattainable—a dreamworld inheritance. Flattened in this way, there are only positives and no threats whatsoever. The Florida we make is the grandest Florida of all. We raise our children to be better than us.

3.
coverIn an otherwise unrelated piece on Antarctic exploration, David Grann invokes Thomas Pynchon’s quote about how “‘everyone has an Antarctic’—someplace people seek to find answers about themselves.” He quotes an explorer who muses, “What is Antarctica other than a blank canvas on which you seek to impose yourself?” I think the same of Florida, which stands in for so many jokes and stereotypes, and most of all serves as a canvas for dreams. Recall Susan Orlean in The Orchid Thief: “The flat plainness of Florida doesn’t impose itself on you, so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream.”

All this in mind, it seems Groff’s Florida and Schutt’s Florida might harmonize. In an ideal case, the Florida we imagine (Schutt) is what draws us to the Florida we settle (Groff). In reality, the Florida we imagine (tourists, snowbirds) is what leads to paved wetlands (developers). In both cases, dream often turns to nightmare. As Florida’s population booms, the more threatened the state becomes. A century ago, Henry Flagler reshaped the state as a hobby and bankrupted himself in the process. Ever after, a thousand hucksters have followed suit. Almost 50 years ago, Walt Disney decided Florida was the blank slate upon which he could impose his will; he secretly bought land upon which he built a theme park beyond the jurisdiction of local governments. Ten years ago, the founder of Domino’s Pizza extended this idea further by developing a private religious community, a closed circuit constructed in his own image. These men come and blithely raise vanity settlements. Their civilizations are engineered beyond the natural. Do these men worry about unintended consequences? Did they ponder any of the same questions as Groff’s characters? If Groff’s characters are fraught with concerns about inhabiting such a precarious position in the world, and about bringing life into it—if they are aware of the give-and-take that comes from inhabiting a state that literally sucks its inhabitants blood—then the state’s most famous and mostly male settlers represent a selfish inverse, an uncaring desire to raise (or raze) an unnatural Florida of their own. In literature and tourism pamphlets alike, it’s often said that Florida is like Eden (Groff calls it an “Eden of dangerous things” in Florida). Yet it’s rarely noted that eventually the humans fucked up and got expelled from the garden.

4.
coverFlorida Man is the title of Tyler Gillespie’s new poetry collection, which blends memoir, interviews, news, and police reports to convey the scope of Florida beyond the flattened punchlines associated with the collection’s eponymous character. Punctuated every few pages by long set pieces such as “Tampa Queens,” Florida Man explores queerness, youth, maturation, identity, and parenthood. “Alligator Named Florida’s Official State Reptile in 1987; or, Birth Year,” for instance, charts two different approaches. In it, the male gator is all malignant strength and bravado (“heart-stopping roar”), while the female is rendered motherly by comparison. Charged with making a nest on her own (“call it / single-mom ingenuity”), the mother dotes on her offspring. By contrast, we lose track of the male once the eggs are laid; he’s disappeared, aloof, unbothered. Meanwhile the female “incubates & waits for young to hatch.” She cares deeply for their well-being. “If baby cannot break shell on its own / she takes egg in mouth gently does it / herself.” Afterward, she’s charged with “defend[ing] her offspring from a father / who eats everything – his young included – / if he ever gets hungry enough to come back.”

5.
coverThe album that broke Against Me! out of Gainesville featured a song with the chorus “Because if Florida takes us / we’re taking everyone down with us. / Where we’re coming from / will be the death of us.” Twenty years earlier, another punk outfit from the Sunshine State released an album called We Can’t Help It if We’re from Florida. That album’s name is the basis for Burrow Press’s new anthology of writing about Florida, which thematically owes a lot to Against Me!’s point: In Florida, there’s a sense of mutually assured destruction that permeates the thoughts of its residents. On the edge of the country, there’s a sense of impermanence and menace, as Shane Hinton touches on in the collection’s first piece. Florida can kill you at any time, and in the 20 stories, poems, and essays that follow, we see exactly how: ominous clouds “like tight bruised fists,” lightning strikes that could contribute to a “Floridian way to die,” and even brain-eating amoeba.

More often than not, this leads to cynicism. In a moment of lucid awakening, one of the characters in “Major Dissociation on Crescent Lake,” Jeff Parker’s story about a sinkhole that may or may not have swallowed up a girl he knows, admits that he finally “saw the place for what it was, a mud puddle populated with flying rats shitting and screwing in scum.” He’s talking about a pond near his gross motel, but you get the sense that by this point he could be talking about the state in which that motel resides. There is a fear that to arrive in Florida is to consign oneself to some horrible fate. “Arriving in Florida was a leaving,” Lidia Yuknavitch writes, and we wonder if she means escape or death. “I was a man who had left,” Nathan Deuel writes as his bus pulls into Florida, and we know he’s talking not only about geography but about a life surrendered. Once you set foot in Florida, you’re never really leaving again.

6.
Of course, the twist is that it’s mankind, not Florida, that inflicts most of the harm in Groff’s Florida, Schutt’s Florida, and We Can’t Help It if We’re from Florida. For all of the animals feared by Groff’s characters, it’s an abusive husband who hits his wife, another wife who cuckolds her husband. It’s the parents who abandon their children. It’s all of us who broke the planet. In Schutt’s Florida, Alice’s mother harms herself, and the ripples of that harm rot the whole family tree. In We Can’t Help It if We’re from Florida, Kristen Arnett’s story is about a woman held captive by a creepy “art therapist.” Alissa Nutting’s is about a mother abandoning her family. John Henry Fleming’s is about one man beating another with a baseball bat. Amy Parker’s story focuses on a man pulled over by a racist cop. Even the sinkhole in Jeff Parker’s story was probably innocent. In the end, the most dangerous things in Florida are its human inhabitants, increasing every year, and so maybe Groff’s characters are right to worry about whether they should be making more.

works on special projects for The Millions. He lives in Baltimore and he frequents dive bars. His interests can be followed on his Tumblr, Nick Recommends and Twitter, @nemoran3.

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