Unlike Carl Hiaasen, who uses Day-Glo colors in his almost-black comedies of Florida, John Brandon goes for the dark side of the palette in his second novel, Citrus County. This disquieting tale of adolescent crimes of the heart and worse plays out in a off-the-road, middle-of-nowhere world of muddy browns and greens, mosquitoes, mushrooms and mildew.
This is not the palm-tree beckoning Florida that Shelby Register imagined when she moved from the Midwest to seasonless, “sickeningly hot,” Citrus County with her father and three-year-old sister Kaley. “She’d wanted surfers instead of rednecks. She’d thought Florida would make her feel glamorous or something, and there was a region of Florida that might have done just that, but it wasn’t this part.”
Shelby’s okay, though. She sees “foreign pink sunrises” in her future. Meanwhile, she likes getting the answers right in the quiz-show-like games in Mr. Hibma’s middle-school geography class. And the good girl in her is attracted to the bad boy in classmate Toby, who lives with his abusive uncle on a few sorry acres studded with sinkholes. Toby’s a restless loner with a taste for petty delinquencies who longs for the future to begin. He knows of a secret bunker in the backwoods near his uncle’s. He thinks of Shelby as an ally of sort. “She had misery in her and she didn’t give it away.”
But more misery is on the bleak horizon when Toby’s “prank” on the Register family goes, yes, terribly wrong. Toby didn’t think things through. Bad things happen to good people.
Brandon, a native Floridian, writes the kind of rural realism of Larry Brown and Tom Franklin, but his sentences are more stripped-down, his tone detached. The result is sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, certainly unsettling. His Citrus County may not be a tourist hot spot, but it’s a must destination for readers.
Open Book: I bought my copy of John Brandon’s Citrus County (McSweeney’s). Now I want to read Brandon’s first book, Arkansas.