"Florida" by Lauren Groff; Riverhead Books (275 pages, $27)
In "Flower Hunters," one of the stories in Lauren Groff's stunning new book "Florida," a character gets a reader's crush on 18th century explorer William Bartram, an early chronicler of the state's flora and fauna: "She's most definitely in love with that dead Quaker."
She wonders what the "bright-eyed" Bartram would "have seen of Florida before the automobile, before the airplane, before the planned communities, before the swarms of Mouseketeers?
"A damp, dense tangle.
"An Eden of dangerous things."
Those last two lines sum up the Florida that provides the setting for most of these 11 finely crafted stories. Groff isn't much interested in the beaches and theme parks; she's focused on life beyond the boundaries, physical and emotional. Paradise is no paradise without peril, so every garden must have its snake – especially in Florida.
Groff was born and raised in upstate New York but has lived for more than a decade in Gainesville with her husband and sons. This is her fifth book and second collection of short stories.
Her best-selling third novel, the terrific "Fates and Furies," was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Award, and was named Amazon.com's No. 1 book of 2015.
Florida plays a supporting role in "Fates and Furies" – its gallant hero, Lotto, is born during a hurricane, the son of a former Weeki Wachee mermaid and a spring water-bottling businessman – but the state stars in most of these stories.
Several of them have main characters who are, if not the same woman, variations on the same type: mother of two boys, in a long marriage roiled by restlessness, she's bright and sensitive but just hanging on to sanity.
The book's first story, "Ghosts and Empties," finds her trying to walk off her discontent, looping through her Florida neighborhood at night: "Feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor."
The walks distract her from her own life by letting her secretly observe other people. "On my nighttime walks, the neighbors' lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums. At times, I'm silent witness to fights that look like slow-dancing without music. It is astonishing how people live, the messes they sustain, the delicious whiffs of cooking that carry to the street, the holiday decorations that slowly seep into daily decor."
One night she is startled to observe a friend naked, drying off after a shower. "Mostly, though," she says, "I see the mothers I know in glimpses, bent like shepherdess crooks, scanning the floor for tiny Legos or half-chewed grapes or the people they once were, slumped in the corners."
A similar woman develops that crush on Bartram as a defense when not only does her family begin to withdraw from her, but her supermom best friend tells her she needs "a little break" from their friendship.
Later, she weeps over a passage in Bartram. "I'm not crying, she tells the dog, but the dog sighs deeply.
"The dog needs to take a little break from her."
In "The Midnight Zone," a couple and their young sons visit the wild Florida that still lives beyond the suburbs.
"It was an old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub. Our friend had seen a Florida panther sliding through the trees there a few days earlier. But things had been fraying in our hands, and the camp was free and silent, so I walked through the resistance of my cautious husband and my small boys, who had wanted hermit crabs and kites and wakeboards and sand for spring break. Instead, they got ancient sinkholes filled with ferns, potential death by cat."
The husband leaves for a business emergency, and she takes a fall that leaves her with a concussion and two terrified children, no cell signal and miles from the nearest town.
During the hours and days they await the husband's return, she has an out-of-body experience that lets her see time as something like that panther: It's "impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you. It cannot see you; it has always been blind to the human and the things we do to stave it off, the taxonomies, the cleaning, the arranging, the ordering."
In "Eyewall," a childless middle-aged widow decides to stay alone in her old Florida house during a hurricane.
"The weatherman on the television repeated the swirl of the hurricane with his body like a valiant but inept mime. All the other creatures of the earth flattened themselves, dug in."
As she too digs in, Groff plays on the idea that as we face death, we're visited by the spirits of those who went before us. The story's narrator seems unsurprised to see her late husband show up, chiding her for drinking all the expensive wine as the winds rage.
She's not exactly mourning him. "A week after he left me, his heart broke itself apart. He was in bed with his mistress. She was so preposterously young that I assumed they conversed in baby talk. ... I was glad that she was the one who'd had to be stuck under his moist and cooling body, the one to shout his name and have it go unanswered."
His ghost will be followed by those of her college boyfriend, a golden boy lost to suicide, and her father. But finally, she'll be the only one there. "The house felt cavernous around me. I had thought it would be full by now: of husband, of small voices, at the very least of chickens." The storm, though, will leave her with a hopeful sign.
Some of the stories focus on other characters. "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners" is a virtuoso performance, a man's life story with as much plot and detail packed into its 15 pages as you'll find in many novels.
Jude is the son of a herpetology professor at the University of Florida, a man whose life is all about snakes. In Jude's boyhood home, Groff writes, "Coils of rattlers sat in formaldehyde on the windowsills. Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coops out back, where his mother had once tried to raise chickens."
Jude's mother came from up North and finds life with her husband unbearable until World War II intervenes. With him away at war, she moves young Jude to the beach, where she runs a bookstore and they live for a few years in happy, snakeless peace.
But the serpent man returns. Groff follows Jude's remarkable life through the deaths of his parents, a flourishing academic career, a terrible accident and an almost accidental marriage.
His bride is full of surprises. He moves them back to the Gainesville house and one day finds that "she had killed a black snake in the bathtub with her bare heel and was laughing at herself in amazement.
"How magnificent he found her, a Valkyrie, half naked and warlike with that dead snake at her feet."
Groff is adept at portraying people in desperate straits, recounting how their humanity is stripped away – but not entirely. In "Dogs Go Wolf," she tells the story of two very young sisters. "Pretty little things, strangers called them. What dolls! Their faces were exactly like their mother's. Hoochies in waiting, their mother joked, but she watched them anxiously from the corner of her eye. She was a good mother."
But the girls are stranded in an old fishing camp on a remote island as first their mother, then the sketchy couple tending them sail away. They're so young they hardly grasp how much trouble they're in, and it's chilling to watch their efforts to survive unfold.
Another desperate character inhabits "Above and Below." Agraduate student with crushing debt and a crashing relationship, she literally runs away from home – and chooses to be homeless. "She thrust her fist out the window and released it slowly. She could almost see her hopes peeling from her palm and skipping down the road in her wake: the books with her name on them; the sabbatical in Florence; the gleaming modern house at the edge of the woods. Gone."
At first, living in her car and hanging outside all day is kind of a lark. "She thought of the thousands of dollars she'd spent on highlights over the years; all that anguish, all those diets, when all she needed to be pretty was laziness and some mild starvation!"
As her life crumbles, she finds wisdom where she can, like what she learns from a man who hires her to clean bars in the middle of the night.
"This land, he told her, was full of living twits and unsettled spirits, both. 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 s –."
It's still an Eden of dangerous things. The woman of the earlier stories returns in the last one, "Yport." She flees Florida for France but discovers her literary and personal quest there is empty. The whole world is Florida, paradise because it's dangerous and dangerous because it's paradise.
"She can't stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans. ... Their world is so full of beauty, the last terrible flash of beauty before the long darkness."