Citrus County (Part 1) by John Brandon (The Rumpus Book Club)

Citrus County‘s first half offers an interesting portrait of the Florida we rarely read or think about, populated by children familiar, to this reader at least, in their humor, angst, and indiscretion.

Anticipating certain events in the narrative, such as Toby and Shelby’s inevitable first kiss, I grew excited to see how Brandon’s sentences would shift from ruminative lines about childhood, loss, and the feeling of purposelessness, to moments of bliss, and grace. During Toby and Shelby’s first kiss, Brandon manages to write of all these feelings, simeltaneously:

“She was kissing him. Shelby’s mouth was moist and assertive and Toby could feel the world’s vastness. He knew there were oceans out there that made the Gulf look like a puddle. There were places covered in snow, places where people ate snakes for dinner, places where people believed that every single thing that happened in their lives was determined by ill-willed spirits. Shelby tasted like nothing. She smelled like freckles and she was making sounds, but she didn’t taste like anything. Toby didn’t know whether his eyes were open. His feet were planted and he was keeping his balance as Shelby leaned against him” (81-82).

Toby feeling the “world’s vastness” reminds me of a memorable image from Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries; that of resting on a floe in the middle of the ocean. Both images have a calmness to them, a sense of peace, but each image, too, is terribly lonely and evocative of a feeling of emptiness. For Toby to feel this during his first innocuously-erotic moment says a lot about his character, and the emotions of young adulthood.

The two main young adults in Citrus County, Toby and Shelby, are clever kids. Toby’s brashness on the book’s first two pages, as well as certain lines of dialogue (“… Nobody else wants to pole vault. It’s not even supposed to be a middle school sport.” “Then why is it?” “The superintendent. He instated it after he married this lady from Finland.” … “He did it for love,” Shelby said. “He made pole vault a sport for love” (28)) are vaguely reminiscent of Juno, a movie whose cleverness irked many, myself included. Brandon, however, fills the gaps between his clever lines of dialogue with sentences potent in their economy:

“Toby was in one spot, still, while the world rushed around him. He felt powerful. He’d thrown the county into a commotion, had given everyone something important to do. He’d dealt a blow to the powerful Shelby Register, the only person in the whole county worth injuring. He’d probably made her a different girl. She wouldn’t be so sure of herself now. She’d be lost like everyone else” (43).

These paragraphs, of which there are many, more than make up for the kitschy, over-clever moments in Citrus County. I should say, though, that I think the humor and the dialogue in Citrus County rings a lot more familiarly to me, and my memories of junior high, than Juno‘s. Not that dialogue and humor needs to be true-to-life, but it certainly helps me connect with a character, or a book.

I really enjoyed the shift the story took 36 pages in, with the kidnapping. I didn’t predict that Toby’s character would act so hastily, but thinking back on what we learned about Toby in the 35 pages that preceded his daring decision, it makes sense. Whereas the first time I read of Toby’s trips to his bunker, I thought that it implied an appreciation for quiet, and solitude, now I read it more as a delusional young boy setting aside time to get thoroughly lost in his own mind, spending too much time with and inside himself, to the point of trying to make sense (“… had given everyone something important to do…”) out of the senseless.

But, then again, how senseless was the kidnapping? Toby isn’t leaving Kaley for dead. On the contrary, he’s taking fairly good care of her, bathing her, feeding her, and always making sure she has adequate light, becoming an almost-“regular” at the local hardware store (which, I predict, will come back to bite him in Part 2). And, for a time, Kaley’s disappearance did give people (the FBI agents) and groups (search units, boy scouts, baseball teams), in varying degrees, a sense of purpose. But just as quickly as that sense of purpose was instilled, it waned. Hope was lost, and everyone fell back into their regular routines of worrying about their day-to-day lives. The national and local news programs found new tragedies to air.  Only for Toby, Shelby, and Mr. Register, did Kaley’s disappearance still mean something. I’m excited to see how Part 2 continues to address this sense of meaning that the missing four-year old gives to these characters.

Stray Observations:

  • I’d like to ask John Brandon: Why McSweeney’s? This seems like a book that could have been picked up by a major publisher and released, perhaps, to young adults (one character, Uncle Neal repeatedly threatens to kill himself, and Mr. Hibma isn’t exactly a positive adult figure, but still). At the 2009 Boston Book Festival, I asked Jessica Anthony (The Convalescent) about her relationship with her publisher (McSweeney’s) and she said it was basically a dream. I imagine Brandon would probably agree, as his first novel was published by them, as well.
  • When Uncle Neal talks about the life-affirming quality of hemlock’s powerful scent (73), I immediately thought of a parallel to the situation facing the Registers. “The hemlock is to remind me of the choice I have to keep living or to stop.” I believe hemlock has a bitter smell, as it’s a poisonous plant. The bitter smell of hemlock is like the sharp feeling of heartache that comes from losing your wife, or mother, or daughter, or sister. Facing that loss, Uncle Neal seems to be suggesting, you have to remind yourself of the choice before you: to keep living or to stop.
  • A few times, so far, sections have started without adequate scene-setting or character-motivations revealed upfront. These sections have been very exciting to read. I’m thinking specifically of the kidnapping scene, which doesn’t reveal itself as a kidnapping scene until mention is made of possibly being caught “red-handed,” 7 paragraphs into the scene. I like the ambiguity of scenes without definition, and the moments of clarity where things start to click.
  • At the conclusion of Part 1, the “good girl/bad boy” dynamic seems to have shifted. Shelby’s cutting school and dragging Toby around corners for public make-out sessions, while Toby doesn’t “intend to fail a class or be subjected to summer school. Forging his detention slips, staring at the wall, getting detention at all – these were no longer part of the program” (89).
  • Mr. Hibma is such a great character. I hope he gets the chance to actually kill Mrs. Conner in Part 2.
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One Response to Citrus County (Part 1) by John Brandon (The Rumpus Book Club)

  1. Pingback: › Book Notes - John Brandon (”Citrus County”)

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