Florida. How about that title, huh? One state. Maybe also a state of mind? Think, for example, swampy, super-heated air; overwhelming fecundity, raging wind and water. Conjure up condos, freeways and malls, economic insularity and frayed race relations. Consider the short-sighted slaughter of our precious planet.
Given these connections, who wouldn’t despair? And in Lauren Groff’s collection of stories set predominantly in Florida, the central characters, mostly women, do despair. They also brood, self-loathe and drink because, ultimately, there’s always another dark sky brewing a fearsome storm on the horizon. And maybe because the world threatens annihilation, these women also seek solace in sensual pleasure, discover wonder in their children, derive beauty from the very surroundings that menace them, and pin their hopes on the coming dawn.
“The rain increased until it was loud and still my sweaty children slept. I thought of the waves of sleep rushing through their brains, washing out the tiny unimportant flotsam of today so that tomorrow’s heavier truths could wash in. There was a nice solidity to the rain’s pounding on the roof, as if the noise were a barrier that nothing could enter, a stay against the looming night.” — The Midnight Zone
By way of contrast to that singular state, The Boat by Nam Le introduces us to a sprawling range of settings. We’re whisked to Colombia, Iran, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. Le boldly lets his imagination loose and we encounter hard-edged street kids, politically savvy young adults as well as ignorant rednecks, seniors both soft-voiced and acid-tongued.
Perhaps this ambitious array explains in part why I didn’t quite find the same virtuoso consistency that I did in Florida, but there were still knockouts: an estranged Vietnamese father and son share a prickly reunion in California; Medellin street kid gangsters settle scores; an ageing artist in New York ruefully confronts the life he has sown; and there’s the tale of a small-town Australian teenager that reads like a compacted Tim Winton novel. The final story, The Boat, in spite of its predictability contained details so visceral I’m not sure anyone else could have painted it so clearly.
Both books will vividly stick with me for quite some time.
Avi Sirlin’s novel The Evolutionist was published in 2014 and his short fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead. He has recently completed a new novel.