I tried explaining this book to my better half just after I finished reading it and it didn’t go so well. I may have to revamp my handselling technique to deliver a more socially acceptable recap of this little gem.
“So, well, this kid, Toby, kidnaps the sister of his girlfriend and keeps her locked in an abandoned bunker in the woods. Everything works out in the end, but…”
“Woah woah. Works out? How could that possibly work out? I’m going to have to call bullshit on this one.”
Maybe I was getting ahead of myself by letting on that “everything works out.” I was just trying to soften the blow. It’s a fucked up little story, but it was really good, I swear. I’m gonna start over now.
John Brandon has written a powerful, funny, bizarre little novel of adolescent longing, loss, and general, everyday misery that creaks along down the dark halls of narration with a resounding reality and clarity of prose unlike pretty much anything else I have read recently. Actually, I’m not alone in thinking this – Daniel “Lemony Snickett” Handler wrote in his NYT review from July that Citrus County is a “great story in great prose, a story that keeps you turning pages even as you want to slow to savor them, full of characters who are real because they are so unlikely.” True, that.
Toby is a 14-year old punk, to be honest. He subsists on chafing against the grain of everything he can find, but he does so in such a quiet, understated way, that he seems to float by you without your ever noticing. He prank calls strangers, asking them whether they’re satisfied with their lives. He takes up pole vaulting, just because his middle school track coach doesn’t want to coach pole vault. He does his best to stay out of the way of his moderately insane, possibly suicidal uncle, Neal who mixes himself fresh batches of potential life-ending hemlock every weekend. When Toby meets Shelby, the smartest girl in his class, his life changes in ways even the most seasoned “coming-of-age” fiction fan could never see coming.
The Big Thing that Toby does on page 37 is an inexcusable act that, on the surface of things, is irredeemable, deplorable, and completely impossible to understand. But here’s the thing: even Toby can’t begin to understand the horrible thing he has done, but he has to deal with it, so he does. He just wants to see where things take him. And so do we.
One evening, while Shelby and her father are relaxing on their front porch, Toby breaks in to their house and kidnaps Shelby’s younger sister. He doesn’t hurt the girl, but he keeps her locked in an underground bunker, pretty much for the rest of the book. The entire novel is essentially the aftermath of Toby’s actions – how he shapes his life around those actions, how Shelby’s life changes as a result, who she becomes in their wake. It is a sparse, compelling novel of observation – with an almost voyeuristic feel to it, yet without the resultant creepiness. This is an interesting dichotomy – to peer through the window in the homes of these characters and to feel better about oneself as a result. Hell, at least I’m not the one doing all the horrible shit – I’m just watching.
Our narrators wander on the extremities of what is socially acceptable – Toby in his blunted rage; the disaffected geography teacher, Mr. Hibma with his thinly veiled homicidal tendencies (in fact, I could read an entire novel of the hilarious inner thoughts of Mr. Hibma); Sherry, who seems to weirdly, quickly accept the fact that her sister has been kidnapped and that her own life has a new path. Yet even with that social blurriness, Brandon manages to create a cast of sympathetic characters who wallow in their malformed lives, leaving us feeling better about our own, yet comfortable with theirs. And even in light of their weirdness, there is always a place for redemption and renewal – even if it comes from the most unlikely of sources – not to mention a crazed, edgy hilarity that I find particularly appealing.
Mr. Hibma went into the lounge. He chugged someone’s soda. Because it made Mrs. Connor angry, he used the ladies’ restroom. He pissed on the seat and buried the bottle of hand soap at the bottom of the trash. He looked into the mirror and said aloud, “I am twenty-nine years old. I am a middle school teacher. I live in Northwest Central Florida. I inherited money from and old Hungarian man I picked up groceries for. I had a couple lengthy talks with him and sometimes walked his dog.” Mr. Hibma cleared his throat. He looked at himself resolutely. “Sir, you spent one third of your inheritance on whores.”
There is something so compactly compelling about this novel that propels you through this town of misfits who cling to your clothing as you pass on to the next book on your shelf. These people have all stuck with me since I finished – always a mark of a special piece of fiction, for me. I was left with the feeling that I had wandered into their lives at the worst possible moment – when all of them are at their most vulnerable, their weakest, the craziest points in their lives. It almost felt as if in the span of a book, those maddened moments passed and their lives resumed.
As odd of a tale as this is, it doesn’t seem so far off from something that could feasibly happen in our own dark-hearted America. And I’m okay with that.