“Florida” (Riverhead Books), by Lauren Groff
“Florida,” a collection of short fiction by Lauren Groff, brings together 11 stories that for the most part have been published in recent years with favorable critical notice.
Several were published in The New Yorker magazine and several were picked to be among “The Best American Short Stories” or a similar yearly anthology.
For Groff’s fans, “Florida” is a handy place to read or revisit her recent short pieces. For those unfamiliar with her work, the collection can be a not-so-smooth introduction.
Often edgy, troubling or painfully grim, the stories are not sunny welcomes to a state of endless beaches and blue skies. But Groff, whose pages are filled with potent, original prose, is a gifted guide to a strikingly vivid Florida of the mind.
In “Eyewall,” a hurricane batters a woman’s Florida homestead as she seeks refuge inside.
The arrival of the hurricane, mixed with the woman’s nightmarish mental flights into her past, is brilliantly described moment by moment: “The lake goose-bumped; 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.”
In a few of the stories, Florida is only tangentially related to the characters or events, but in others it is elemental: storms, swamps, scrub forests and run-down camps form eerie backdrops as vestiges of Old Florida give way to New Florida’s modern angst.
Many of the main characters in these stories are in search of stability, a personal sense of peace, but maybe not love. Most are women, although one is a man raised in a “Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp,” and two are young sisters fighting starvation on an island.
There is real fear in the sisters’ story, “Dogs Go Wolf,” as there is for a young boy in “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” a superbly turned tale touching on class and deception.
The most harrowing story, “Above and Below,” describes the emotional descent of a young grad school dropout. Driving away from the university, she “opened the window and smelled the queer dank musk of deep-country Florida.”
She is on a journey into a land of deepening perils, mental and physical.
Groff, a highly regarded writer who was a National Book Award finalist for her 2015 novel, “Fates and Furies,” makes this story, like most others in her new collection, an extraordinary trip for the reader.