In the beginning, there is the woman who walks.
"I have somehow become a woman who yells," she says. "And because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk."
This woman, this unnamed narrator with her unnamed husband and unnamed children, offers us our first tour of Lauren Groff's Florida, with its feral cats and rapists, Spanish moss, homeless people and nuns. It is dangerous, this place. Randomly so. Beautiful, too, though run-down and repurposed and renovated and falling to pieces all over again.
The woman walks. She tells about what she sees in a nearly stream-of-consciousness rattle, full of discursions and time jumps to last month, last season, last year. She walks through winter and spring and summer. All night, some nights — the fury in her (nameless, sourceless, except that, of course, it is fury at everything and everybody and everything all over again) only expended by movement and exhaustion.
Nothing happens. It is a vignette. A long one, but still. Things change — a fat boy on a treadmill loses weight, the nuns are evicted from their nunnery — but nothing happens. Change is the only motion and, in the end (in an epic, gorgeous, heartbreaking run-on monster of a sentence that might be one of my top 10 favorite things of those ever written), the walking mother's spirit flees from her to touch her husband and lie beside both her sleeping boys; to be there, in the place that her endless anger will not allow her to be.
That is how Groff's Florida opens. That's how she flexes her muscles, warms up, and lets everyone know that she hasn't lost a step since Fates And Furies. It's how she lays out the stakes and the rhythms of this novel that isn't quite a novel (more a short story collection with multiple interlinking threads of time and place and mood and characters). This is where we are, she tells us. This is what we're going to be talking about for a little while.
Women, wives, mothers, daughters. All pissed off (in one way or another), all damaged and in danger (in one way or another), all searching for something either real or uncertain. In "Yport," a mother (possibly the same mother) is searching for Guy de Maupassant in France — for the traces he left in the places he lived and worked. In "Dogs Go Wolf," two sisters are abandoned and survive on an island without power or the hope of rescue. They starve ("The older sister's body was made of air. She was a balloon, skidding over the ground.") but don't die of it. It is Lord Of The Flies and Robinson Crusoe and a realer, more present, frighteningly possible and intimate post-apocalypse amid all today's larger, shootier, explodier apocalyptica.
Groff's language is, as always, gorgeous and precise. Her ability to map the inner contours of characters who seem to exist entirely in extremis — and, almost entirely, within a fragile shell of feigned competence and normalcy — is remarkable. Her Florida is a frightening place that bends (solely through the eyes and experiences of her characters) into a discomfortingly modern Southern Gothic tradition. Her stories — all of them — are haunted. There are always extra eyes somewhere off in the dark.
Not every story works (which is the gravest danger of a short story collection — the risk that one clunker can infect the entire collection or one truly great one make everything else seem cheap and shoddy by comparison). But "Dogs Go Wolf," the almost hallucinogenic "Eyewall" (about a woman refusing to evacuate ahead of a storm), the weird, hot, sticky closeness and lurking danger of "The Midnight Zone?" They're so good that any of them alone would've been worth the price of admission. And the best of them, "Above And Below," is a wonder of an entirely different caliber. It is about a young woman's descent into homelessness and the tiny missteps, the capriciousness of luck, that drives her there.
But it isn't about that at all. The story is how she survives it. But it isn't really about that either. The story is what comes next and next and next, but that's just the sideshow. What it's about is how she grows within the assumed context of homelessness. Kind of. How she accepts the horror of it, the shame, the terribleness and odd, beautiful moments and takes them into herself. How it all shapes her.
Except, again, not really.
What haunts every line of "Above And Below" is the inevitability of it. It stands as the summation of Groff's entire tone: This idea that storms and panthers and violence and love and weariness are all out there. That women are all going to take their share. That life, maybe, is measured in the ration of misery that you take and the grace with which you suffer it.
The fury you store up. The rage. And the cold, clear vision of the world it gives you when all illusions have finally been burned away.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
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