Wednesday, December 1, 2010

John Brandon's Citrus County

 Since the RPA conference, I've had more time to write on the blog, though I still find I'm a few entries behind. I've been kicking around several ideas, and they haven't yet crystallized. And I've wanted to review a few books, including John Brandon's Citrus County (McSweeney's, 2010). I haven't reviewed much fiction on The Notes Taken, and concerning the last novel (the only novel?) I remember reviewing, what I wrote doesn't quite portray what I liked about it (see what I get for trying to write a review of one of Roberto Bolano's novellas?).

So I'm going to try again from a different angle. Citrus County is John Brandon's second novel; his debut is entitled Arkansas, and is also published by McSweeney's. It was, for the brief time I attempted such lists, one of my favorite novels of 2008. That being said, Citrus County has-- at least regarding my expectations-- a lot to live up to, so to speak.

The novel gravitates toward the daily lives of two adolescents, Toby and Shelby, and one of their teachers, Mr. Hibma, in (I'm sure you guessed it) Citrus County, Florida, on the Gulf Coast. If you're having trouble imagining what people do in that location, you're not alone. So do the protagonists. Which is where Brandon excels as a storyteller. He introduces you to the characters, lets them interact a bit, sets up an unlikely and troubling scenario from which it is difficult  to extract the narrative, and then...makes the reader wait. And wait, as the characters negotiate their day to day lives in a tough situation.

Which means Brandon sets for himself a tricky task. I thought Arkansas had it bad, but Citrus County has it worse. He seems to take to heart Vonnegut's advice that, when writing, one must be as sadistic as possible toward the characters to see what they're made of. (From here on out there might be spoilers...) In the long dull days of Citrus County Toby hatches a plan to take hold of his life and give it direction. Obsessed with a bunker he's discovered near his uncle's house, Toby decides to kidnap Kaley, the younger sister  of Shelby, who is the only girl who has shown interest in him. Not for any other particular interest other than a test to see if he can really pull off the deed. 

And once he does, we wait. We wait through the brief media sensation of Kaley's kidnapping, through the adjustment period for Shelby and her father, we wait through the seasons of the various sports played in Citrus County, and we tarry as Mr. Hibma-- who found his way there through a map and throw of the dart-- tries to decide between integrating himself into the life of local teachers or murdering one of his retiring colleagues. Beyond this, the reader is confronted with the daily life of a place in which everybody assumes something better, or at least more interesting, is happening elsewhere. 

My highschool years wasted away in a small suburb, so I know the feeling. Brandon's prose captures that ennui. Since two of the protagonists are adolescents ("They’re adolescents, which means they’re insane," he says in an interview with the NYT book blog), Mr. Hibma's charged with the task of reflecting on how exactly he ended up in that godforsaken part of Florida:
Mr. Hibma missed his youth in general, he realized, back when the knowledge that he was different from other people filled him with pride, not dread. Mr. Hibma was almost thirty. His mind was growing stale, his body stiff, but mostly he was exhausted by the idea of remaining in his life for another fifty years, for another five. He wished his life were a terse novella. He wished he knew how long he was destined to live. He wished he knew whether he'd be murdered or killed by a venomous snake or just waste away of old age.
In contrast to Toby, Mr. Hibma can't seem to hatch a plan and make it happen. However, this isn't always a good thing. Once Toby realizes the bunker and its hostage are a burden, that Shelby's interest is not so bad or invasive, he's got to solve the Kaley problem. But how? the reader is going to be asking, from about page thirty seven onward. Brandon can't seriously be thinking of a simple reconciliatory happy ending, can he? But then why would McSweeney's publish such a possibly sappy novel? Ultimately I can't spoil this part, but I can say that Brandon doesn't take the easy way out. 

In any case, let's not rush to the door. On the long winding road to the finale, Citrus County is an intricate picture of small obsessions and quotidian detail, leaving the reader wondering how everyday life could be so enigmatically intriguing.

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