In Lauren Groff’s second story collection, the dark and engrossing “Florida,” the title state is almost always home to bad news. Snakes are persistently underfoot, personal finances are cratering, and there’s always bad weather to match the relationships that have bent and broken. Groff expresses little overt interest in religion, but she grasps the metaphorical power of all that storming and slithering: We were once in Eden, but we’re getting our eviction notice.
Every novelist is required to have a feel for busted relationships. But Groff has proven to be particularly expert and inventive on the subject. Her 2012 novel, “Arcadia,” chronicled the rise and fall of a hippie commune in pointillistic detail, and 2015’s “Fates and Furies,” a National Book Award finalist, shattered the mythologies that surround the idea of happy marriages, not least the self-delusions that fester within the couples themselves.
From the first line of “Florida” — “I have somehow become a woman who yells” — it’s clear that Groff is still on-brand. Her writing about relationships rarely sticks within the narrow, Updike-ian confines of domestic dysfunction, though. Even in short stories, she prefers broader canvases, and much of “Florida” is filled with hurricanes and other violent storms that run parallel to the personal crises she describes.
While the world is “on its bender,” we try to literally pave over it and pretend all is well. “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” for instance, follows Jude, the son of a herpetologist whose inheritance — a large tract of land where dad did most of his snaking — is slowly crushed and redeveloped. “Such a delicate ecosystem, so precisely calibrated, in the end destroyed by Jude’s careful parceling of love, of land. Greed, the university’s gobble. Those scaled creatures, killed,” she writes.
But Groff suggests that such efforts to build our way out of our troubles will only stoke a creepier human ferality. In “Ghosts and Empties,” a woman on her nightly walks witnesses her neighborhood’s civilized facade slip off, from a declining local convent to regular catcalls from a man in a bodega. “He has yet to do more than hiss,” the narrator thinks. “But there is a part of me that is more than ready, that wants to use what’s building up.”
These slow-motion environmental and emotional crises are usually gendered. Most of the characters in the collection are women who are forced to navigate increasingly dangerous territory: two girls abandoned on an island in “Dogs Go Wolf,” a female college student slipping into homelessness in “Above and Below,” a woman whose rare opportunity to cut loose on vacation is undermined by a violent storm in “Salvador.” Being women doesn’t cause their problems, but they’re notably unified by the fact that they have a hard time finding help out of them, forced to rely on their own devices. Groff’s favored stylistic tone to describe these predicaments is straightforward but moody and metaphorical — magical realism without the sparkle and sense of wonder. But she also has a gift for mordant humor. To entertain themselves, the two abandoned girls in “Dogs Go Wolf” tell each other stories that are one part fairy tale, one part horror-movie franchise:
The boy and the girl stayed all winter eating the cookie house, and when spring came, they’d turned into adults. Then they went to find the boyfriend.
Why? The little sister said.
To eat him, the older sister said.
People eat people? The little sister said.
Sometimes you just have to, the big sister said.
And that’s part of the myth of modern Florida, isn’t it? If you see the word “Florida” in a book title today, you can safely assume it’ll be about a place on the knife’s edge of civilization and criminality. That notion has fueled countless “Florida man” memes, the acclaimed movie “The Florida Project” and plenty of serious contemporary fiction too: Peter Matthiessen, Russell Banks, Karen Russell, and the late Tom Wolfe have all made something of the way life goes profoundly sideways there. We’re nearly a century distant from Ernest Hemingway’s vision of the state as a place that manly men can command and master with hard fishing and hard drinking. Now, our status there is wobblier — it’s a swing state in more ways than one.
Groff is firmly part of that trend of thinking about Florida as dank and reckless. But she’s also careful not to simplistically summarize the place. The impoverished unnamed hero of “Above and Below” is an academic whose faith in words and themes have vaporized along with her money and home. “You run away from your man? That’s the story?” asks a cop who finds her sleeping in her car. “There’s no story,” she responds. She’s kept her copy of “Paradise Lost,” but has no time or energy to read it; words are all but dead and useless. And even the glimpse of redemption on the final page is a denial of pat narratives.
Toward the end of the book, in the closing “Yport,” Groff pokes fun at a fiction writer: “She’s a novelist, which is tantamount to being a one-woman card catalogue for useless knowledge.” To be sure, fiction — especially its ill-selling subset, the short story — can seem like a weak bulwark against a tidal wave of real-world political and environmental problems. Still, Groff means her joke to be just that — a joke.
Culturally, we’re in a time where all knowledge seems threatened to be deemed useless. A writer who grasps how we make myths and exposes how words fail in such an environment is still a valuable resource. Snakes and hurricanes are Florida problems. But the storms that Groff describes are everywhere.
Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix.