Lauren Groff lives in Florida, so it makes sense that her latest collection of short stories would include bits of the state.
However, in Florida, Groff includes much more than bits of Florida. In each of her 10 stories, Florida is a character, as the author pits woman (and, in one glorious story, man) against nature.
That nature is wholly Florida, which has on offer the most gritty kind of wilderness one can imagine: man-eating beasts, an interconnected web of ecosystems whose hearts beat just beneath the patina of strip malls and tourist attractions, iridescent holes of water that seem to go clear to the center of the earth. Three years ago, Roxanne Gay wrote about living in Florida for a spell, and she told her readers, “Florida is a strange place: hot, beautiful, ugly. I love it here, and how nothing makes sense but still, somehow, there is a rhythm.”
Lauren Groff reveals that rhythm to her readers, but perhaps the biggest shock comes from the rhythm’s syncopation. Florida is consistently raw and wild, but inconsistent with its strains of raw wilderness. In her stories — starting with “Ghosts and Empties” but perhaps most striking in “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” — Groff paints that raw, wild beat of the state in broad brushstrokes and thin lines.
“Ghosts and Empties” tells the story of a suburban woman who, the moment she steps outside her home to go for a jog (a nice, suburban ritual), deals with conflict in all its classic forms — man vs. himself, man vs. others, and man vs. nature (there’s a particular horrifying description with an otter). In “Yport” — which takes place in France — the heroine must admit, despite her battles to be another person, that Florida is where she belongs. This theme of battle with the state is a consistent throughline of the book; in every story, our heroine battles each of these things, and, often, the Florida wilderness also provides a symbol for the battle raging inside the heroine.
Every story, from the longer “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” to the shorter “Snake Stories,” weaves environmental conflict into personal struggle. Over and over again, Groff gives us classic examples of what we all studied in high school English, except, because it’s Florida, because we live with this wilderness, in some form, every day, the Florida reader has a more personal insight into the conflict than they did, perhaps, into Heart of Darkness.
Thankfully — and despite the many, many delicious moments in Conrad’s masterpiece — Groff surpasses Conrad with her carefully crafted stories that reveal struggle in the mundane. You don’t need to go to the Congo to have a transformative struggle, Groff tells us anew with each of her marvelous tales; real struggles happen to average people in average situations (albeit one may argue Florida is something other than average).
And so is Florida, as it chronicles those internal struggles played out on a canvas painted with the wild heart of Florida.
From the story “Eyewall,” in Florida
It began with the chickens. They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks. Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing. Fine, you ungrateful turds! I’d said before abandoning them to the storm. I stood in the kitchen at the one window I’d left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west. I felt the chickens’ fear rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers.
We waited. 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. I stood in my window watching, a captain at the wheel, as the first gust filled the oaks on the far side of the lake and raced across the water. It shivered my lawn, my garden, sent the unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells. And then the wind smacked the house. Bring it on! I shouted. Or, just maybe, this is another thing in my absurd life that I whispered.
At first, though, little happened. The lake goosebumped; I might have been looking at the sensitive flesh of an enormous lizard. The swing in the oak made larger arcs over the water. The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance.
The wine I had been drinking was very good. I opened another bottle. It had been left in a special cooler in the butler’s pantry that had been designed to replicate precisely the earthy damp of the caves under Bourgogne. One bottle cost a year of retirement, or an hour squinting down the barrel of a hurricane.
My neighbor’s jeep kicked up hillocks of pale dust on the road. He saw me standing in the window and skidded to a halt. He rolled down his own window and shouted, and his face squared into his neck, which was the warm hue of a brick. But the wind now was so loud that his voice was lost, and I felt a surge of affection for him as he leaned out the window, gesticulating. We’d had a moment a few years back at a Conservation Trust benefit just after my husband left, our fortyish bodies both stuffed into finery. There was the taste of whiskey and the weirdness of his moustache against my teeth. Now I toasted him with my glass, and he shouted so hard he turned purple, and his hunting dog stuck her head out the back window and began to howl. I raised two fingers and calmly gave him a pope’s blessing. He bulged, affronted, and rolled up his window. He made a gesture as if wadding up a hunk of paper and tossing it behind his shoulder, and then he pulled away to join the last stragglers pushing north as fast as their engines could strain. The great rag of the storm would wipe them off the road. I’d hear of the way my neighbor’s jeep, going a hundred miles per hour, lovingly kissed the concrete riser of an overpass. His dog would land clear over the six lanes in the southbound culvert and dig herself down. When the night passed and the day dawned calm, she’d pull herself to the road and find herself the sole miraculous survivor of a mile-long flesh-and-metal sandwich.
Florida by Lauren Groff | Riverhead Books: 288 pages | Available June 5 | laurengroff.com
Meet Lauren and hear her read from her book at Inkwood Books on June 7 — get more info here.