‘Florida’ bears its fangs with wild stories of a wild state




Lauren Groff is an animal. That was a metaphor; catch up! In all seriousness, Groff has created a literary masterpiece with her collection of short stories, ​“Florida.” Groff’s fifth book showcases a writer in her prime. You can feel her stretching her limbs as she writes. You can practically see the athleticism in her writing. This is an artist who takes imaginative leaps, and it’s a glorious thing to witness.

In the tradition of Southern Gothic writers, Groff uses setting to create mood. The landscape often provides the engine for the worlds she creates. She animates the state of Florida like no other writer before her, except maybe Karen Russell (“Swamplandia​​!”). Groff conjures the state of Florida as dangerous, humid, and erotic.

What is particularly impressive in “Florida” is Groff’s ability to seamlessly switch back and forth between universal statements of truth and particular observations. The effect is like a camera zooming in and out, but so skillfully accomplished that you never feel dizzy.

For instance, in “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” Groff writes: “Jude was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.” Next, in just a few short sentences, Groff uses a wide-angle lens to further establish character: “Few people lived in the center of Florida then. Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans.” The efficiency of her scope is jaw dropping.

It’s difficult to compare Groff to other writers, but for reference, consider a cross between George Saunders and Ottessa Moshfegh. There is the Saundersesque weirdness and the Moshfegh courage of bringing small, messy things to life and then making a larger point sense of it all. A third trick up her sleeve, surprise, brings it all together.

Lyricism and rhythm ooze out of every perfect sentence. If this book were read slowy — perhaps in a cliched poet voice — you might think it’s an actual poem. But beyond Groff’s superior language skills, she is a storyteller at heart. And what’s the use of beautiful-sounding prose without a good story?

The collection, a hearty 11 stories, boasts a variety of protagonists and “voice” throughout. However, “Florida” never loses its solid understanding of plot. While the collection does not follow a single character, it is tightly bound by theme and tone.

At the heart of Groff’s collection is a sense that humans, though they often make silly decisions and foolish mistakes, are beautiful creatures. There is a sense of humanity to Groff’s writing, so that you never ask yourself, “Why this? Why today?” ​Her characters commit folly and her narrators often feel shocked by fact of beauty in life even amidst all its messiness and pain.

In “The Midnight Zone,” arguably the most well-known story in the collection, a woman is left alone with her children in a hunting camp deep in Florida scrub. There is rumor of a panther on the loose. The mother tends to the children and then has a terrible accident.

What follows is a haunting, surreal account of the narrator’s experience. Simultaneously dreamlike and grounded, Groff creates a world that the reader is terrified to leave. She lies down sentence after sentence, leading us further into truth:

“I passed outside. The path was pale dirt and filled with sandspurs and was cold and wet after the rain. The great drops from the tree branches left a pine taste in me. The forest was not dark, because darkness has nothing to do with the forest– the forest is made of life, of light — but the trees moved with wind and subtle creatures.”

The clean prose is hypnotic. You won’t be able to stop reading mid-story.

Groff is a rarity — she is both a writer’s writer and a reader’s writer. Few other writers — Maybe Stephen King, probably George Saunders — with this gift come to mind. These are writers who can be appreciated by both the literary scholar and the casual reader. Her fine-tuned craft does not alienate people, because she keeps her prose accessible and fun.

Yes, I said it: ​fun​. Groff understands that readers want satisfaction. They want details, they want hooks, and they want to lose themselves in a well-told story.

“Florida”​ is the best book I’ve read all year, and I read a lot of books. Groff is an exciting writer to watch. It’s hard to imagine that she can keep improving, but that’s what she’s done with every book so far. “Florida”​ is a triumph.