In John Brandon's Florida, a disgraced hotshot financial adviser, formerly "the toast of Tampa," gets schooled on entrepreneurship and life wisdom by a Little League player. A religious cult lives in a tiny village because mysterious winds there tear the roofs off houses and whisk their occupants away forever. And on the beaches of a town north of Tampa Bay, young sharks take to leaping out of the water to attack folks on land.
All that and more can be found in the stories in Further Joy, Brandon's first collection of short fiction, after three novels. Brandon is native to these parts — born in Bradenton and raised in New Port Richey — and he knows the territory, physical and otherwise. His 2010 novel Citrus County was a macabre and comic tale about an eighth-grader who commits a kidnapping out of love, set in a small-town Florida so well-observed you could hear the palmettos rustle and the mobile homes rust. Many of the 11 stories in this collection are set in that slightly surreal state as well.
Brandon's characters live on the fringes. They're mostly smart and self-aware, but their lives tend to be stalled and scarred by profound loneliness. Take Pauline, the main character in Palatka. "Pauline had been so happy, a year ago when she'd finished college, to find a pocket of the Florida peninsula that had not yet been subdivided and sodded, a swampy area with no access to a beach or to Disney World. She'd wanted a bold move, a move she wouldn't have expected of herself." But the bold move has turned into an isolated life; she works at home as a freelancer and has contact mainly with her wild-child teenage neighbor, Mal. When the girl goes on a date with a stranger and never comes home, the story turns into a mystery full of slow-growing dread as Pauline seesaws between wanting to help Mal — and wanting to be her.
The Midnight Gales is narrated by a boy who lives in a town where a religion has grown up around highly localized storms that cause its residents to vanish — or, as believers have it, are chosen. Apart from that, it sounds like a pretty attractive belief system: "We don't mind not knowing," he says of his faith, "don't ask questions and then get angry at the answer. We don't gather around anything that moves and beat it with sticks until money falls out. Our services aren't an excuse to figure out who you hate and who you're supposed to vote for and what you're supposed to wear. We took all the fun out of religion, is what my mom says. She says it's better than razor wire for keeping out bad elements."
The title story is a dreamlike, incantatory piece about a group of teenage girls and their fathers, none of them named but referred to mostly in plural. Brandon captures the girls' insular circle of friendship, their ephemeral passions, their budding sexuality — and their fathers' discomfort with all of it. "The era the girls were growing up in had no texture," Brandon writes. "The music betrayed nothing. The generation preceding the fathers' had been wild, and the fathers themselves had learned to be jaded, but the girls were past all that. Jadedness, for them, was an old stale religion not worth its costumes. Rebellion, to them, was quaint."
In Naples, Not Italy, a married couple host a friend, Lara, who is "newly single and rankled." Her chaotic state is soothed by the couple's banal life in a "shabby old condo" on the less-than-ritzy side of Naples, in a development where most of the residents are much older than the trio. The highlight of the main characters' days is a game they call 20-Point Turn. "All you do is sit with your drink, hidden among fronds, and watch the old folks try to park." The narrator, the husband of the couple, feels sorry for Lara — until he realizes he might need to start feeling sorry for himself.
Not all of the stories are set in Florida. In The Differing Views, an unemployed man who has been dumped by his girlfriend looks into the spare bedroom of his condo in Albuquerque, N.M., and sees seven human brains inching across the carpet. In The Picknickers, a middle-aged woman visits an old friend in Chicago and finds her dissatisfaction with her life highlighted: "For years she'd been trying to get herself to watch more TV, but none of it seemed intended for her. She wasn't a target audience, she supposed — there wasn't a spinster-in-training-of-above-average-intelligence demographic." Her friend's son, though, gives her a new perspective.
But whether they're set in Florida or elsewhere, all of these beautifully crafted stories take place in a fictional territory where the utterly familiar and the utterly strange coexist, and where the strangest thing of all might be the human heart.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.