The State with the Prettiest Name

Michael Hofmann

  • Florida by Lauren Groff
    Heinemann, 275 pp, £14.99, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 78515 188 0

‘So I have sailed the seas and come … to B … a small town fastened to a field in Indiana,’ the late, great William Gass began his imperishable short story ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’, from 1968. Or, with his and your permission, ‘I have sailed the seas and come … to G … a healthcare mecca and football burg that was previously a town with a university that began life as a plant-breeding institute, and before that a railway-and-turpentine camp glued to a pine swamp in Florida,’ as Lauren Groff and I (separately) have done, perhaps a dozen years ago in her case, more than two dozen now in mine. For love and family in her case; in mine, improbably and occasionally grimly, for work.

It took me a while to get used to G, as I’d like coyly to go on calling it. I started off part-time. Like Persephone, one term in two. I bought a lady’s bicycle and slept on a colleague’s Vietnam-era camp-bed in a short-let plywood apartment (‘it’s called Sheetrock’) without furniture. I didn’t own so much as a lamp or a pillow and sheets. When May came around, I would stash everything I possessed in a trunk and slide it under the desk in my office; the bicycle I left chained up in a garage. My being there, in G (like Persephone’s), was actually a form of non-existence. Then in January I would unpack and get the tyres replaced on the bicycle (the inner tubes would inevitably have perished over the long Florida summer, when everything suffers, but rubber suffers the worst) and start over. I was like some fussy, optimistic, migrating animal, perhaps more incorrigible than indomitable. Over time, I acquired pots and a pan, books, lots of books, and scads of increasingly jaunty short-sleeved shirts. I bought a radio cassette player from a Walmart subsidiary called Sam’s Club, now wound up. I bought an ancient nursing chair. To meet my classes I wore shorts and my ‘teaching jacket’. I learned about deck shoes. At some point, a colleague retired, and I stepped up: both terms, full-time. My things no longer fitted in the trunk; maybe I was getting a taste for existence. Once, I house-sat for a friend in Film Studies while he was in Paris; another time, I rented the upstairs apartment of a ridiculously handsome pink wooden building. Seven years ago, I bought a small brick house a few streets away from Lauren Groff, in the old, leafy, residential part of town, the area New Yorker readers – thanks to Groff’s piece ‘Ghosts and Empties’ – have learned to call the Duckpond.

The things that sing to me about G now are largely those that baffled or terrified me when I was first there. (Pankaj Mishra is right: there is so much in that Rousseau word ressentir, ‘to feel for a second time’.) Often these are minority or transient phenomena: the senses recoil from the brute humidity and stifling, often sunless, heat of the days here. There is something annihilating, too, about the contrasting binaries: day and night, glare and shade, inside and outside, temperate and tropical, man-made and natural. ‘A complex of few interweavings’ is Henry James’s curtly paradoxical summary of the Florida scene. Heavy, stagnant air and violent hurricanes. Paradisiac contentment and accesses of sudden panic. The strange recumbent crescent moons. The deep shadows in the daytime. The snuffling or crisping animal noises at night. The thunderstorms and the warm, white rains. Everything tending to the excessive, the immoderate, the monstrous. Here, the parcelled tree breeds for the backhoe and the greige ‘mature community’, knocked up overnight from cardboard and nail guns and spray paint. Sometimes, dry, glacial air slides down from Canada; those are our very best, blue and gold winter days.

‘Amid the swarm, pluck but a fruit or two from any branch’ is James’s counsel to himself, regarding impressions of Florida. A grey subtropical sadness is diffused by the greyish pines and oaks and magnolias, and the epiphytic Spanish moss, here called simply ‘moss’ and hanging everywhere like the contents of some celestial exploded hoover bag. An expression of elephantine regret. ‘This is just to say …’ The air, after rain, like cabbage-infused steam, and dragonflies cruising up and down in it. The ground, either sand or tarmac, which water either disappears into as though it had never been, or trampolines around on. Butterflies, like errant broadsheet newspapers. Wisteria strangling a pine. The occasional olive drab hummingbird, unless it’s a pocket-sized military drone. Turkey buzzards orbiting, as the poet said, for ever lost in their monotonous sublime. Hospitality to all forms of life, it sometimes seems, except one’s own, from sand fleas (‘no-see-ums’) to torpid yellow lizards stretched on the window screens at night, lapping at insects. An acquaintance decided against settling here: the frogs were too loud. If the Almighty had intended for us to live here, surely He would have given us webbed feet. Or gills. Or cold blood. The urban legend has alligators tenanting swimming pools. Possums, armadillos and raccoons – respectively, stupid, armoured or clever creatures – out and about. Bacchus will know his own. The oft-noted absence of seasons, though a kind of unbearable monsoonish summer persists for half the year, while autumn, winter and spring take turns unpredictably, a week or a day or an hour at a time, during the other half. Everything animal stings or bites or makes you jump; everything vegetable sprouts thorns and runs with poison and aspires to the condition of creeper (Wallace Stevens’s ‘vine angering for life’). Home from home to invasive species, from carp to kudzu, from rain trees and Australian cockroaches to hundreds of thousands of Irma and Maria refugees from Puerto Rico. A world of allergens, dissolved like fish food in the sodden air; the pollen has pollen (Stevens’s ‘Florida, venereal soil’). Of growths, lichens, fungi, moulds and mildew (Stevens, as above). The entire state, one long memento mori, one death in life, one endless thanatope. Merry, spirited flowers and names of flowers. Blue-eyed grass. Shrimp plants. Five o’clock plants. Firecracker plants. Tea-olives, that smell of apricots. Or peaches. I can never remember. Great stacks of clouds. Oh, world-class clouds. Alto-cumulus.

One thinks of the US as expanding its territory and – maybe – civilisation westwards, but just as much, it went southwards. A century and a half ago, few settlers lived here. There was the Atlantic port of Jacksonville (‘not a name to conjure with’, James says, with modest asperity), but precious little else. It was lawless frontier country, as much as the Wild West. There were Indian wars here as much as there. Banditry and skulduggery, scams and religions, ditto. Dirt-poor, barefoot, backwoods Florida (the subject of Frank Conroy’s memoir of the 1930s and 1940s, Stop-Time) is not all that long gone. Sweet tea, squirrel and grits Florida. Then, successively, railroads, oranges, real estate, wintering place, destination for domestic and foreign tourism, and retirement paradise, all of them subject to boom and bust, blight, bankruptcy, toxicity, scandal, a sudden deep freeze or an abrupt falling out of fashion. All exacerbated by the way human agencies here, far from softening it, themselves took on the ruthless quality of the local nature. (John Berryman’s father shot himself in Clearwater, Florida, in 1926, after some failed land speculation.) Eventually, made safe – though never altogether – for year-round habitation by the twin miracles of air-conditioning and refrigeration.

Florida still runs what I would call a catastrophe economy. It is always recovering from a crash or being expertly steered (take a bow, Tallahassee legislature, down there with those of Topeka, Kansas, Madison, Wisconsin and Baton Rouge, Louisiana: bigoted, self-dealing, stupidity to the power of anything-you-like, manifesting urgency and savoir faire only where it really doesn’t matter) into the next slump. ‘The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near,’ as the navy brat Jim Morrison sang (born in Melbourne, Florida). Nothing here is really robust, and in the long run, as Keynes would put it, we are all Atlantic Ocean anyway. Or sinkhole. Or termite dust. Or red tide. Or the mort de nos jours, the scenario where the hurricane knocks over the power lines, the emergency generator runs out of gas because there is no gas, because the highways are now ‘refugee routes’ choked with fugitives and the tankers can’t get through, if there even were any tankers, so the air-conditioning gives up the ghost, and, left to our fate by those we underpay to look after us, we gently boil and parch and (I hope) hallucinate to death. But for now, for now there’s still Cape Canaveral (‘the Space Coast’), Disney, Miami Beach, the Keys. The constrictor-ridden Everglades, sugar and snakes.

Or, indeed, G, way up north and bang inland, roughly equidistant from both coasts and the Georgia Line, unfashionable, ungarish, unfrivolous. No sherbet-coloured Deco or exercise-muscle on display here. Leathery, prairie, echt Florida, at just about the point where the orange groves once shaded into cattle country (though the groves are kaput now, done in by a deadly, beetle-borne pest called citrus greening), a kind of south-eastern version of Nebraska, never quite floated by any passing tide, but never quite sunk either. Kept going by the law enforcement industry (land is cheap, so G is ringed by prisons; in the small, four-stoplight town of Starke, a few miles to the north, Old Sparkey keeps sputtering away; ‘You try em, we fry em,’ the old senator said); by the academic industry; by the healthcare industry. And, just now, foolishly trembling to be noticed by the extractive industry. A peninsula that aspires to the condition of just its two coastlines (that Euclidean line that handily faces both ways, mar and lago, so to speak, and has no area). A foxed blotting-paper pockwork of land and water that appears unexplainedly and drains away without notice (and that’s just the land, a layer of fine white ‘sugar’ sand suspended over whimsical limestone). Geologically, apparently, of a piece with Africa, and not America at all. ‘The antiquity of the infinite previous, of the time, before pharaohs and pyramids, when everything was still to come’: the Miami-born Donald Justice found the passage in Henry James for me at the beginning of my time here. ‘Saigon, 1969,’ my friend Larry Joseph said, when I sat him in Leonardo’s coffee bar a block away from campus. ‘Fucking Yucatan,’ I called it, not dismissively but wonderingly, coming in to land here the very first time, in the expectation of finding something more built up, and seeing practically no here here under the massed elephant-grey trees and glinting black water. The pharaohs no doubt still to come, though they would surely thrive here, at least as well as in the Yucatan.

*

A book called ‘Kale’ will provoke more than one called ‘Lettuce’. Florida feels like a clever and bold title to me, with strong focus-group positives and strong negatives and even strong uncommitteds: even if you’re on the fence about the state, you will be strongly on the fence about it; imagine if it had been called ‘Maryland’ or ‘Rhode Island’ or ‘Idaho’ or ‘Maine’. As such, the title both sells and oversells Groff’s new publication, her first since the bestselling, his-and-hers marriage novel Fates and Furies (2015), famously admired by President Obama. It is an uneven collection of 11 pieces, eight of them with some bearing on Florida. Two more are set in France (the anti-Florida: for ‘nature’, read ‘culture’), while ‘Salvador’ is set in a preternaturally dark and teeming Brazil (a might-as-well-be Florida). Although, if it’s straight Florida you want, you’d probably still be better advised to read Carl Hiaasen or Joan Didion. Or Matthiessen or Conroy or Stevens. Or Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings or Zora Neale Hurston. Or the Master himself.

The pieces (one doesn’t want to use the word stories here, or not always) are sometimes more fictionary (to use Tom Paulin’s word), sometimes less so; the wilder, more strenuous ones are usually the weaker, and end up merely irking the unflapped, flapped-at reader. Read here, in situ, it seems, in patches, an adorably local book. A selfie stick of a book. Our Thomas Centre appears, ‘atrium’ and all. Our Bo Diddley Plaza, with its homeless and its Occupy and its Friday rock concerts. Our uncontained, ballooning university. Our ‘downtown library’, where I once heard Groff give a reading. The wicked, moustachioed otter – a Terry-Thomas of an otter, I’ve seen it too – that made off with our baby swans. Our ‘imperfectly safe’ neighbourhood, with its up and down tic-tac-toe social economic history. The ‘elegant, tall woman who walks a Great Dane the colour of dryer lint’ seems familiar as well. There is a warpingly hyperbolic account (think of a medieval tapestry or hi-density Disneyfied nature flick) of our hurricane in ‘Eyewall’ (another title that tugs at the reader, the way ‘Florida’ tugs):

On my way downstairs, I passed a congregation of exhausted armadillos on the landing. Birds had filled the Florida room, cardinals and whip-poor-wills and owls. Gently, the insects fled from my step. I sloshed over the rugs that bled their vegetable dyes onto the floorboards. My brain was too small for my skull and banged from side to side as I walked. Moving through the humidity was like forcing my way through wet silk.

Groff writes under pressure to make event, to make drama, to make fear. The reader feels this, continually, sympathises, and is puzzled. ‘What’s the matter? Dinna fash.’ There’s something overheated here that isn’t Florida. This author enters running, or at least running a temperature. ‘I have somehow become a woman who yells,’ the first story begins, and this yelling, which we never hear, has something – or more likely, nothing – to do with our state. It is Groff’s badge of honour, her very own intensity. We read the strange phrase ‘her bad pet dread’, and other such disordered affects as a ‘vengeful amount of butter and cheese’ or ‘a European novel on the nightstand that filled me with bleach and fret’ (Elena Ferrante is my tip for that). ‘I put on,’ she says, ‘my don’t-fuck-with-me face.’ Groff’s characters are generally on the defensive, even when not under attack: they can be relied on to know their way to the nearest sharp object, even in the dark. ‘Not to fall asleep is distinguished,’ Saul Bellow said long ago, in Humboldt’s Gift. Now, to yell is the mark of a hero. The contemporary heroine is a yeller, or at least threatens us with her yell.

And, covering the middle ground of the book, stretched between Silent Yeller and Distant Yelland (cupping its ears and hearing nothing), is Florida, Groff’s ‘Eden of dangerous things’. It comes to an attempt to harness the place as character, as prime mover, as antagonist, as explanation; as a way of transcending one’s own state of uneasy gruntlement (to use the term of art of my friend James Lasdun), where the things that happen to one are either memorably bathetic (a ‘baby sinkhole’ appearing in the yard, ‘a peach tree that had died from climate change’ or a friend leaving ‘an entire vegan chocolate cake’ on a character’s front step) or inapprehensibly distant, like the ‘great Pacific trash gyre’, the times that are ‘too troubled’ and the whole looming end of the world. Certainly, the book gives voice to the ambient fear that these days gets slathered over everything in America; at the same time, Groff’s characters and speakers are completely alone with their politics (it’s their curse, the muted Cassandra, speechlessness making frenzy), their heads helplessly bonging with them. There are several references to ‘bad men’ in the book or ‘possibly terrible men’, but there aren’t any bad or possibly terrible men in it. Not really bad. Not Tallahassee bad. Alone in their proud fear (‘Here were my husband’s feet on the dirt drive. Here were his feet heavy on the porch,’ ‘this gentle man whom I love so desperately and somehow fear so much’), Groff’s depleted families and lone female protagonists seem almost to luxuriate in a self-created state of risk, in voluptuous fantasies of abandonment, with visions of the social floor being whipped out from under their feet, their small excitements being parlayed into something, oh, almost measurable.

It’s all well intentioned but desperately unpersuasive, a little like the time Princess Diana tried to end it all by throwing herself against a glass cabinet; as with Diana and the cabinet, the supposed victims here are far more competent and alarming and capable of inflicting damage than any of the agencies of their looked-for doom. Two little girls are abandoned on a small island with nothing to watch but an old video of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and nothing to eat but melted cosmetics (‘Dogs Go Wolf’: it’s not a bad story). A mother falls off a bar stool while changing a light bulb in a borrowed weekend cottage (‘The Midnight Zone’). She suffers concussion and has delirious fantasies of herself and her sons being savaged and eaten (‘our skulls popping in the jaws of an endangered cat’) by an exceedingly rare Florida panther – a species now down to double figures, I believe, and so cuddly, totemic and abject that it is only ever seen on bien-pensant licence plates or dead on the highway, looking for the last remnants of its dispersed habitat.

Clearly, there has been a substitution: in place of a fear for we have the fear of. It’s timeo ergo sum. Any fear going is laid claim to. Mine! No, mine! ‘Oh, Mommy’s scared of everything,’ remarks a small boy, who knows. (His little brother has a thing about tsunamis.) A deaf man goes rowing on the small lake behind his house while his wife is away driving their daughter to college in Boston. Sloppily, he lets his oars drop in the water. Of course, instantly doomed. Only, will he die of mosquito bites, or will a passing alligator-snake take pity on him first (‘At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners’, if you can stand it)? Or ‘Above and Below’, like a pallid meso-remake of D.H. Lawrence’s Sun, goodbye to boyfriend, university, repossessed house and humdrum dreams of career; hello to beach-life, tan, weight loss, attractiveness, strangers, sleeping in the car, homeless encampment. Egad, even her copy of Middlemarch disappears. A policeman looms in the window at night, to be greeted, still, with reflexive cleverness:

She turned on her penlight to see a groin in stretched black fabric and a shining leather belt hung with a gun in a holster and an enormous flashlight.

Cop, she thought. Penis of death, penis of light.

It is the sort of delirium of loss – withdrawal of safety net, abandonment, insecurity, weekend survivalism, ‘I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!’ – that feels like nothing so much as a perverse reassertion of ownership and invulnerability. Meanwhile, it is of course not Florida, as it were, naturally and unwittingly, that is inflicting this dread on Groff or any of her protagonists but, quite deliberately and programatically, people.