In the tradition of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha stories and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Lauren Groff’s humane and deftly observed second collection of stories is deeply engaged with its local landscape. Many of the stories are set in the state that gives the book its title, and Groff’s Florida is oppressively humid, brooding with snakes, alligators, and other lurking dangers. Her characters find themselves in extremis, as they reckon with hurricanes, indigence, the wilderness, abandonment by their lovers and mothers, and other hostile circumstances. During this reckoning, they show themselves to be deeply scarred but ultimately capable of spiritual and moral transformation.
In “The Midnight Zone,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, a mother on a camping trip decides to stay on for a few days with her two young sons when her husband is unexpectedly called home. When she has an accident, her sons are forced to become her caretakers. In her delirium, she experiences a dissociation between mind and body and her consciousness drifts outward toward the nearby forest until it is among the animals, and she realizes the insignificance of her own life and all human activity:
What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you. It cannot see you; it has always been blind to the human and the things we do to stave it off, the taxonomies, the cleaning, the arranging, the ordering.
Groff’s characters are typically middle-aged mothers whose idealism is revealed to be shallow or misplaced. In “Yport,” a novelist has been struggling for a decade with a historical novel about the writer Guy de Maupassant. As she travels through France with her children, tracing Maupassant’s various haunts, she meditates on his life and the role he has played in her life. Many of Groff’s protagonists are literary, and their engagement with literature offers a form of salvation otherwise denied them in their uninspired lives. The novelist dreamily recalls her first encounter with Maupassant: “She loved the book, and the writer, because reading his warm voice had made her feel less alone, less inept … She became a different person in French: colder, more elegant, more restrained. She is most herself in French, she hopes.” Like many of Groff’s characters, she tries to recreate herself in an attempt to banish her sense of inadequacy. Unsurprisingly, she does not succeed: the trip to France is laughably unproductive, and the novelist grows disenchanted with Maupassant and his writing. She is far from the only character in the novel to suffer from a crisis of misidentification, both of herself and of her relations with others.
The overwhelmingly tragic nature of these stories is often redeemed by the restorative qualities of empathy or of family love, particularly the bonds between husband and wife and mother and child. In “Ghosts and Empties,” Groff’s most essayistic and loosely organized story, a mother wanders the streets of her Florida neighborhood and becomes disturbed by the abandoned houses, physical decay, and absent neighbors. She suffers a sense of deep melancholy at the impermanence of human life. But Groff grants the mother a momentary reprieve. In another dissociation between mind and body, the mother imagines her spirit caressing her husband and children:
I hope they understand, my sons, both now and in the future just materializing in the dark, that all these hours their mother has been walking so swiftly away from them I have not been gone, that my spirit, hours ago, slipped back into the house and crept into the room where their early-rising father had already fallen asleep, usually before eight p.m., and that I touched this gentle man whom I love so desperately and somehow fear so much, touched him on the pulse in his temple and felt his dreams, which are too distant for the likes of me …
The lyrical passage is the mother’s subtle meditation on her own mortality. She refers to something like an afterlife—a future when she has become bodiless and her spirit returns to comfort the living; by imagining this, she is herself comforted.
Groff’s stories often conclude with subtle moments of epiphany, when her characters acquire greater empathetic understanding of others and realize the limitations of their perspective. Her protagonists suffer through their crises, but in the process, they are reformed and their sense of purpose restored. In this way, Groff immerses her characters in the dark until they have learned to see.