From Hanging Chads to Bath Salt Cannibals to the entirety of the Florida Man Twitter account, Florida has earned a reputation of slovenly and savage inelegance throughout the 21st century. Lauren Groff's Florida might not completely return respectability to the region, but it returns a fair bit of mystery and menace to its shores.
In the story "Flower Hunters" a wife and mother is obsessed with the naturalist William Bartram, who passed through what is now Micanopy in 1774, "when it was a Seminole trading post called Cuscowilla," to the detriment of all the other lives around her. She imagines what Bartram, given the name Puc-Puggy (Flower Hunter) by the Seminole chief, would have found "before the automobile, before the airplane, before the planned communities, before the swarms of Mouseketeers."
Through Bartram's writing, she sees this ghost of the pre-Florida Man Florida: "A dense, damp tangle... An Eden of dangerous things... Florida, Bartram's ghost has been trying to tell her all along, is erotic. For years now, she has been unable to see it all around her, the erotic."
Likewise, the stories in Groff's second collection (her first book since her Obama-recommended novel Fates and Furies), return an almost prelapsarian sultriness, mystery, and nobility to the state once described by The Simpsons as "America's wang." The large, dripping flora is alive with hidden, dangerous fauna here. That same fauna is likely to slither out of its hiding and into the homes that are supposed to represent triumph over the wilderness. Even if one does batten all their hatches, brooding, sudden, and violent storms come knocking, bringing ghosts with them and knocking out electricity, knocking out modernity itself, returning the land and lives to something more haunted, and primordial that's always on the brink of return and capable of exerting its influence on even the most sheltered contemporary life.
"One does not really conquer a place like this," Marc Reisner wrote of the desert, but the sentiment applies well to Groff's sodden Florida. "One inhabits it like an occupying army and makes, at best, an uneasy truce with it." The eleven stories collected here are shot through with uneasy truces, whether personal, romantic, environmental: the wildness of Florida, with all its danger and eroticisim, can be chopped back and held at bay, but all it takes is a quick lapse in caretaking for all the sunbirds, cannibals, and Mousekateers to be returned to and enveloped by a dense, damp, tangled Eden.