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.
I’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?
That 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.
Motherhood 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.
In 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.
Florida 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.”
The 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.
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.
Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections, Nightwork and A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer, and two novels, Florida, a National Book Award finalist, and the recently published, All Souls. She lives and teaches in New York.Since first discovering A.L. Kennedy’s novel, Paradise, in 2005, I have read the book or portions of the book every summer. The narrator, Hannah Luckraft, an alcoholic, is a great disappointment to her family but a boon drinking buddy to Robert. Both are impressively self-destructive, and their romance with drinking and the oblivion it promises is conveyed in the most inventive language. Open the book to any page and there is relief for the language depleted. Here is Kennedy making all kinds of noise: “Beyond the lintel’s shade, there is the sweeetness of grain fields on the breeze, the bland dust of poor soil, baked to a yellowish crust . . . bladderwrack and rock clefts dank with scrub and gorse; that slightly human musty fug of heated gorse, the snap of its seeds, the blood drop in the yellow of each flower: which is to say, the smell and taste and everything of my being a child in summer. . .” The sly and self-aware Hannah, caught still in bed, says “there is always something horizontal in your tone that gives you away and you may occasionally wonder whether this is, in fact, what you want.” More unsettled at times, Hannah slurs into italicized panic: “JesusI’mscaredandIhaven’tacluewhatmy faceisupto.” Some surfaces are “sheened with misfortune,” and fumes and toxins “are briling about.” Oh, I could go on. Robert “dunts in against (her) shoulder” or “coories himself in behind (her).” Page after page of surprises. I don’t think I will ever tire of Paradise.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The distractions of a good book have been in high demand this year. A quiet corner and a transporting story offered a reprieve from relentless campaign news not to mention cheap entertainment for the many feeling a sudden impulse for thriftiness. 2008 was a loud year, and this final month seems likely to be only more deafening. The annual shopping frenzy has already ramped up, this year with overtones of desperation and the macabre.Yet in the spirit of the season (though in defiance of the prevailing mood), we offer a month of gifts – collected with the help of many generous friends – to our readers. There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008’s best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call “the tyranny of the new” holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the “Best Books of 2008” feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.Being a reader is about having millions of choices, and a lucky reader has trusted fellow readers as her guides. With this in mind, we’ve asked a number of our favorite readers (and writers and thinkers) to be your guides for the month of December, with each contributor sharing with us the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date. And so we present to you our 2008 Year in Reading, a non-denominational advent calendar of reading recommendations to take you through to the end of 2008.We’re doing it a little differently this year. The names 2008 Year in Reading contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Stephen Dodson author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of LanguagehatNam Le author of The BoatBenjamin Kunkel founding editor of N+1 and author of IndecisionRosecrans Baldwin founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me ThereHamilton Leithauser lead singer of The WalkmenMark Binelli author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!Dan Kois founding editor of VultureAmanda Petrusich author of It Still MovesJoseph O’Neill author of NetherlandRex Sorgatz of Fimoculous.com.Elizabeth McCracken author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationJoan Silber author of Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the WorldAnder Monson author of Other ElectricitiesDon Lee author of Wrack and RuinTraver Kauffman of Black GarterbeltBuzz Poole author of Madonna of the ToastEdan Lepucki of The MillionsJim Shepard author of Like You’d Understand, AnywayPeter Straub author of seventeen novelsRachel Fershleiser co-editor of Not Quite What I Was PlanningCharles Bock author of Beautiful ChildrenEdward Champion of The Bat Segundo Show and edrants.comHelen Dewitt author of The Last SamuraiManil Suri author of The Age of ShivaCharles D’Ambrosio author of The Dead Fish MuseumChristopher Sorrentino author of TranceWells Tower author of Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedLawrence Hill author of Someone Knows My NameJohn Wray author of LowboyEd Park founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal DaysSarah Manguso author of The Two Kinds of DecayKrin Gabbard author of Hotter Than ThatJosh Henkin author of MatrimonyJosh Bazell author of Beat the ReaperBrian Evenson by The Open CurtainCarolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.comHesh Kestin author of Based on a True StoryScott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and proprietor of Conversational ReadingGarth Risk Hallberg author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The MillionsSana Krasikov author of One More YearSeth Lerer author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s HistoryLorraine López author of The Gifted Gabaldon SistersAnne Landsman author of The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s ChimneyMark Sarvas author of Harry, Revised and proprietor of The Elegant VariationBrad Gooch author of City PoetKyle Minor author of In the Devil’s TerritoryChristine Schutt author of Florida and All SoulsTodd Zuniga founding editor of Opium MagazineDavid Heatley author of My Brain is Hanging Upside DownV.V. Ganeshananthan author of Love MarriageFrances de Pontes Peebles author of The SeamstressLaura Miller cofounder of Salon.com author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in NarniaDustin Long author of IcelanderMaria Semple author of This One is MineRob Gifford of NPR, author of China RoadJohn Dufresne author of Requiem, MassMatthew Rohrer author of Rise UpMickey Hess author of Big Wheel at the Cracker FactoryGregory Rodriguez author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and VagabondsDavid Ebershoff author of The 19th WifeTim W. Brown author of Walking ManPablo De Santis author of The Paris EnigmaHugo Hamilton author of DisguiseJoshua Furst author of The Sabotage CafeKevin Hartnett of The MillionsRoland Kelts author of JapanamericaNikil Saval assistant editor at n+1The Year in Reading RecapBonus Links: A Year in Reading 2007, 2006, 2005