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A Central Florida woman recently took a video of her son playing with an inflatable alligator on a Slip ‘n Slide in their backyard. It wasn’t until she replayed the video a few minutes later that she saw an alligator lurking in the shadow of a lawn chair just a few feet away.

This sense of menace in paradise, the feeling that you are being watched by someone or something — gator, snake, rapist — is pervasive in Lauren Groff’s new collection of short stories, Florida (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley). The nameless narrator of the first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” is both watcher and watched as she tries to walk off her anger and frustration by pacing through her gentrifying neighborhood in the early evening. She witnesses snippets of others’ lives through lit windows, “domestic aquariums,” even as she is seen by feral cats and singing frogs, a shy homeless lady, a man who hisses by a bodega’s barred window.

This same woman, or one much like her, a writer with a husband and two young sons, concerned about climate change and the future, appears in several other stories.  She also seems like a stand-in for Groff herself, who has lived in Gainesville for the last 10 years. In the book’s ending story, the woman and her boys escape a Florida August for a disappointing vacation in France, where she realizes she doesn’t belong, despite having once been an exchange student enthralled by Guy de Maupassant. “Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”

Maybe not. In her acknowledgements, Groff thanks Florida, “sunniest and strangest of states.” It has long been fertile territory for writers, too, from naturalist William Bartram — invoked in Groff’s “The Flower Hunters” — to contemporary crime writers, both gothic and noir. Groff and her characters dwell in sun and shadows, “a dangerous Eden,” where a concussed woman imagines herself a panther (“The Midnight Zone”) or two little girls abandoned on an island stave off hunger by eating cherry-flavored ChapStick (“Dogs Gone Wild”). The allusion to Hansel and Gretel is deliberate, but other stories also read like dark fairy tales. A widow who decides to stay in her house during a hurricane (“Eyewall”) is visited by the spirits of lost loves as the storm smashes down like a fist. In “Snake Stories,” there’s this once-upon-a-time sentence: “On the day I found the girl, the robins were migrating and the crape myrtles flashed with red.”

I like Groff’s stories for her gorgeous writing, but also because they remind me of when I first moved to Florida, 33 years ago this week. It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. I grew up in the Carolinas and visited cousins in Central Florida both before and after Disney. I knew heat and humidity, palmetto bugs and Spanish moss. But after a few years in the Midwest, I found Florida’s jungle-like lushness exotic and overwhelming. I arrived in the midst of a frog-strangling thunderstorm in what turned out to be one of the wettest summers on record. Plants grew like Jack’s beanstalk, mosquitoes thrived, snakes sought higher ground. I saw my first wolf spider crawling up the wall behind me while looking in the bathroom mirror and fled the house in terror. Hurricane Elena taunted Florida that August, and a tree fell over in the parking lot but missed my car. Then came the sinkholes. And it wasn’t just nature that was disturbing. It was the summer six-year-old Regina Mae Armstrong went missing from her babysitter’s yard a few miles away. Her remains weren’t found until several years later, her killer never has been.

I feel at home in Florida these days, but every now and then I’m caught up short by its fierce beauty or its mundane weirdness, like the plane last week that was delayed by the alligator lumbering across the runway. Groff’s stories, with their indelible images and air of unease, reminded me Florida’s a place like no other, a state of mind, sunny and oh so strange.

 

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