I heard the rumor throughout my time in the Florida panhandle. The panthers are coming back. Nearly extinct by the 1990s, the big cats have rebounded thanks to a successful breeding program and are pushing north again out of the Everglades. Anecdotes of huge paw prints and nighttime sightings have followed in their wake. I’d hear neighbors speculate that state officials were downplaying the predators’ spread, for fear of jumpy citizens and trigger-happy cattle ranchers. But many residents know: The panthers are here again, stalking the subdivisions, skirting the edges of the visible, seen only in stray glimpses of an eye or the flickings of a yellowy tail.
That panther decorates the cover of Lauren Groff’s new collection, Florida, and its resurgent spirit stalks through its pages. The stories have a nearly zoological fierceness. They contain a state’s worth of ways that human desires are baffled and broken apart. Sometimes that might be for the best: Those human desires led to the political and ecological disasters that also haunt this book. The expanding territory of predatory cats may be a welcome development after all.
Florida marks an expansion of territory for Groff too. Born in upstate New York, Groff kept to those general latitudes in her first three books. Her novel Fates and Furies included a foray to Florida, but this new collection is her deepest immersion in the state where she has lived with her family for well over a decade, in the inland city of Gainesville. It’s a headlong plunge. Groff throws open the windows and turns off the A/C, mosquitoes and heatstroke be damned.
In “Eyewall,” a woman rides out a hurricane with nothing but a few bottles of excellent wine. When it’s over, she finds that “the storm had stripped the sheets like a good guest, and they had all blown away, save one, which hung pale and perfect over the mirror, saving myself from the sight of me” (p. 99). Stepping outside in the post-storm humidity is “like forcing my way through wet silk.” But what matters is that she’s still standing, and lives to see an altered world.
Like Fates and Furies’ protagonist Mathilde, the narrator of “Eyewall” is in an impassioned argument with the men she has loved—a debate over the wildly differing details of a life they barely seem to have shared. But the difference here is that all of the men are dead. They are chatty specters, stirred up by the storm and the bottles of Burgundy. A cheating husband, an expansive boyfriend, and a distant father all come in from the rain. But in the end, they can’t help her, either to survive the storm or untangle her life. “There’s no wisdom coming from you,” she tells a carefree ghost as the wind howls. “Everything’s all right for the dead.”
Groff’s fevered Florida erases the boundaries between dead and alive, waking and dreaming, as easily as a wave washing away a line in the sand. In “The Midnight Zone,” a character has an out-of-body experience in a cabin “shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub” (p. 68). Alone there with her two young sons, she knocks herself loopy in a fall off a stool. “I felt the dissociation, a physical shifting, as if the best of me was detaching from my body and sitting down a few feet distant” (p. 80). Her spirit then goes on a walk through the woods while her body remains in bed:
I wasn’t in any single place. I was with the raccoons…with the red-winged hawk chicks breathing alone in the nest, with the armadillo forcing its armored body through the brush. I hadn’t realized I’d lost my sense of smell until it returned hungrily now; I could smell the worms tracing their paths under the pine needles and the mold breathing out new spores, shaken alive by the rain.
This is not fantasy or magic; it is a character’s carefully documented experience, strange though it may seem. More than gators, more than rattlesnakes, this state of bemused dissociation is what defines Groff’s Sunshine State. Her characters’ reality is as porous as the limestone underneath their feet—and as anyone who has seen coverage of Florida sinkholes knows, that limestone can collapse. A midstorm visit from the dearly departed, a concussed communion with the pinewoods: These are precisely cataloged symptoms of simply being alive in an overwhelming landscape.
What is Groff’s aim, with this title? As a writer who grew up in Florida and lives here now, I felt vaguely nervous when I first heard the title of this collection. It sounded something like an intention to lasso and capture the whole of the state, a daunting goal for any writer, much less one raised up north. But as I read, I found that the book operates something like Christine Schutt’s feral 2003 novel, also named Florida—so much so that I wondered whether Groff’s title was a kind of tribute. Throughout Schutt’s account of a particularly phantasmagoric childhood, the word Florida pierces through repeatedly like a ray of light. It comes to stand for hope, escape, a place with “good health all the time” where “fruit fell in the meanest yard.”
Of course, this place does not quite exist. Each writer’s book teaches us this painful fact. Far from making a triumphal claim on the territory, both Schutt and Groff seem to use Florida to invoke the whole array of hopes, dreams, Utopian delusions, and desperate plans that are forever being pinned on this state. And of course, the way that all these unrealities can go smash when exposed to the light.
Groff’s story “Dogs Go Wolf” is a staggering explication of that hard truth. Two young girls are spirited away to an island by a passel of indifferent adults, and then abandoned there. Alone with a dog, they watch Snow White on repeat until the generator runs out of gas. Then they are forced to scrounge for food and water. They paint each other with left-behind makeup. At one point, they eat cherry ChapStick.
Lacking food and pursued by a bad man, the sisters survive on stories. One panicked telling of Hansel and Gretel substitutes blue aquarium pebbles for breadcrumbs. Myths and fairy tales have preoccupied Groff since The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia, but her use of them here feels harder and truer than anything that has come before. In Arcadia, stories out of the Brothers Grimm were splendidly well-wrought objects of admiration; in “Dogs Go Wolf,” fairy tales are made out of dirt, grit, and blood. They are shaped by the desperate conditions of the girls’ lives. In that way, they are closer to the spirit of the Grimms than any faithful retelling. As Groff recently observed, the fairy tale is a survival tool, adapted to our specific predicaments. “Fairy tales act as tiny inoculations against anxiety or terror: we are exposed to the worst scenarios … and, through the pluck and intelligence of the protagonist, we are carried into a better life than before,” she told the New Yorker. “I believe that stories are the most powerful weapons we have.”
I looked into one of those panther sightings once. A neighbor up the road swore she’d seen one the night before. Her yard abutted parkland. I looked around for tracks, but didn’t find much. A dog’s scrabbled paw prints, a bobcat at best. I remember the way the woman’s sister rolled her eyes at me behind her back. But my neighbor was insistent. The panther had passed there, right there. Long and yellowish and about yay high.
Maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t. She wasn’t changing her story. And why should she? For her, the night was that much fiercer, and that much fuller. Groff’s Florida may do the same thing for its readers: surprise and menace us, fascinate and sometimes frighten us, and leave the whole world fuller than it was before.
Florida by Lauren Groff. Riverhead.