John Brandon likes his geography slightly warped—half-real, half-fictional corners of the rural South where almost anything might happen—and names his books after those locations: Arkansas (2008) and now, Citrus County (McSweeney’s Rectangulars).
The Gulf Coast native sets his newest in a desolate Florida backwater populated by rednecks, scorpions and missing dogs, a town where “you couldn’t keep anything unless you had a good hiding spot for it.”
He zeroes in on a handful of brooding misfits, two of whom are in middle school and one who teaches there, all of them eyeing the skies for something that will turn their disappointing, meaningless, mind-numbing existence into authentic gold. In a place where even the insects are “creatures with stingers and pincers and scorn in their hearts,” you just know that whatever comes along to do the job is not going to be pretty.
Toby McNurse, at 14, would like it if the next few years of his life would fast forward. He’s not interested in “the pale fascinations of his classmates—music, drugs, cutting themselves, sex.” It’s the next phase he’s interested in, the point “where he would be his real self, whatever that would be.”
Despite his limited capacity for real evil (so far, he’s racked up a lot of detentions and made a few crank calls), Toby sees himself in a much larger role: “He wasn’t another marauding punk. He’d been acting like one, thus far, but he was destined for higher evil and he could feel that destiny close at hand.”
Mr. Hibma, Toby’s 30-something geography teacher, is faking his way through another semester, having chosen teaching by default and Citrus County by throwing a dart at a map. He avoids geography lessons and hates the other teachers to such an extent that he fantasizes killing one of them. His responsibilities plague him: “Mr. Hibma did not feel like an adult.”
Shelby, Toby’s classmate, is too smart to share the concerns of the other girls at school—“makeup, basketball players… who would take whom to the dance.” In the humdrum ranch house she lives in with her father and little sister, she dreams of moving to other climates; possibly India or France. Until that time, Toby’s outsider cachet is just what she’s looking for, a “bad boy” to her “good girl.”
Brandon tosses his grenade early on in the story, when Toby’s simmering sense of destiny boils over and his feelings for Shelby provoke him to act. Shortly afterward, Shelby’s four-year-old sister, Kaley, disappears. At first, the hunt for Kaley pulls in local search teams, FBI agents and TV and news forces. But when months pass and no suspects emerge, Shelby turns her attention back to Toby, and Toby begins to wonder if there’s some way he can back out of what now seems to have been a very bad plan.
“Mistakes had been made,” he tells himself in one of the book’s more chilling scenes.
Brandon’s stripped-down, dispassionate prose is the perfect complement to his characters’ outsized yearnings and disillusionments, capturing their bitterness and resignation at every turn. Through their eyes—a convincing but skewed perspective— we get close to the heart of their fondest, and screwiest, hopes and dreams.
Hints abound that Brandon is toying with notions of reality and fiction: The FBI agents aren’t “the primaries” in Kaley’s case; Shelby notes that the TV cameramen outside her house look like “actors paid to play cameramen.” No one ever seems to get their bearings: Toby “had been thrown into the wrong life”; Mr. Hibma feels like a “character, not the author.” Shelby’s grieving father jokes, “I’m going to tell my real feelings that they’re barking up the wrong tree.”
In Citrus County, Brandon walks his readers through the same uncertain, no-man’s-land his characters travel, leaving it up to us to decide which parts of the journey are real. It’s a dark, original and unpredictable treasure hunt well worth the trouble.
(A version of this review was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in September 2010.)