Many a novel borrows part of its plot from the headlines; once in a while those headlines can hit a little too close to home. • Tampa Bay area readers will certainly recognize the territory in which John Brandon's new novel is set: It's titled Citrus County. • That county's tourism bureau isn't likely to be handing out copies of the book, though. Brandon, who grew up in New Port Richey, a couple of counties south, focuses not on the charms of manatees and meandering rivers but on decaying strip malls, abandoned subdivisions and the claustrophobic side of small-town life. • He gives us a vividly realistic picture of a place teeming with swamps, sinkholes and insects, "creatures with stingers and pincers and scorn in their hearts" — and a human population with much the same attitude.
As an FBI agent says at one point, "Everybody calls this the real Florida. … I don't understand an expression like that. Is part of the state imaginary?"
Maybe, but it would be more comforting to remind yourself that Brandon's version of the frayed edges of the Sunbelt is (more or less) imaginary. Told in a spare style laced with macabre humor, Citrus County is Southern Gothic goes to middle school. Its main characters are two eighth graders and a teacher who share a deep sense that they are outsiders whose lives may be over almost before they have begun.
One of those kids is Toby McNurse, a laconic orphan who lives in an isolated house with his half-crazy uncle, drifts around the margins of life at Citrus Middle School and spends hours walking through the woods, discovering all sorts of forgotten places, including an underground bunker where he likes to meditate in the dark.
The other kid is Shelby Register, whose family just moved to Citrus County a few months before; her dad is doing his best to raise her and her 3-year-old sister, Kaley, after their mother's death. Shelby is loved at home and probably the smartest kid in school, but she too feels like an outsider, old beyond her years, longing for a different life but unable to envision it.
The teacher is Mr. Hibma, who doesn't teach much geography in his geography class, but feels a connection with the loneliness he sees in Toby and Shelby. "Mr. Hibma missed his youth in general, he realized, back when the knowledge that he was different from other people filled him with pride, not dread. Mr. Hibma was almost thirty."
Mr. Hibma is the kind of guy who looks at a Bosch painting and expects to find himself in it. He struggles with an urge to kill a fellow teacher, not just because he dislikes her but because he thinks such a terrible act might have a transformative effect on his own life.
Toby's way ahead of him. From the book's first scene, we see him trying to gauge his own potential for evil. By the irrefutable law that draws good girls to bad boys, Shelby begins a brisk flirtation with him. Torn between attraction and discomfort, Toby feels the need to do something dramatic.
That something is kidnapping Kaley. He snatches the child from her bed, stuffs her in a duffel bag and hides her in the bunker, almost on a whim and with no plan what to do afterward, just a hope that disaster will somehow turn Shelby into his arms.
Citrus County explores the consequences of that act on its characters' lives in ways that both surprise and ring true. Brandon draws his characters so deftly that we can be horrified and intrigued by them at once, and his plot just as deftly avoids cliches.
But as skillful as Brandon is at spinning out the tensions among his characters, walking the balance between the darkness and twisted humor of his story, I found myself affected in an unusual way while reading Citrus County.
I'm a voracious reader of crime novels, and I know they often minimize the experiences of victims. It makes sense dramatically — it's tough to pay attention to the battle of wits between, say, criminal and detective if we're too caught up in the suffering of the victim.
Citrus County isn't a traditional crime novel, but it does revolve around a crime, and Brandon certainly minimizes the victim — Kaley spends most of the book in the bunker, but scenes between her and Toby are few and brief, and never from the little girl's point of view.
In a book set elsewhere, I might not have been struck by that at all. But, although Kaley's kidnapping plays out differently, it's strikingly similar in some ways to a real Citrus County crime, the kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in 2005.
Taken from her bed by a neighbor, John Couey, she was sexually assaulted and held for several days in a trailer near her family's home before Couey buried her alive. Her body was found several weeks later, after Couey was arrested. (He was convicted and sentenced to death, but died in prison last year of cancer.)
The case was major news for several years, and I'd absorbed its details so thoroughly that they colored my reading of Citrus County. Interested as I was in its main characters, I was haunted by the voiceless one underground.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.