Gussie Dwyer’s life has been turned upside down, and so has the world around him.
Gussie is the indomitable, irresistible hero of John Brandon’s fourth novel, Ivory Shoals, set in frontier Florida in the months just after the end of the Civil War. The novel has echoes of many great books — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, True Grit, Swamplandia!, Shadow Country — but it has its own story to tell, and tells it with insight and brio.
At age 12, Gussie has spent all his life in Palmina, a tiny town on the east coast of Florida. His kind, devoted mother, Lavinia, supported herself and her boy by working at a brothel called Rye’s. Gussie has never known a father, but recently, aware she was dying, Lavinia gave Gussie a gold watch that belonged to a man named Madden Joseph Searle. He’s an inventor, she tells her boy, a brilliant and good and wealthy man, and he’s your father.
Despite her long illness, Lavinia’s death leaves Gussie stunned. But the watch and the name of its owner give him a goal: to meet his father. First, he needs to collect his mother’s earnings from her employer.
Rye treats Gussie about the way you’d expect a pimp to treat an earnest boy: He brushes him off with mild contempt and an accounting of all the money Lavinia supposedly owed him, for everything from laundry service to cigars and condoms for her customers. Feeling magnanimous, though, he gives the boy the coins in his pockets — which Gussie scorns.
That night, full of rage and grief, Gussie breaks into Rye’s and steals the day’s take from the till. Then he heads off for the west coast of the state to find Searle.
It’s the spring of 1865, mere weeks after the surrender at Appomattox, and the whole nation is reeling. Gussie joins throngs of other travelers on Florida’s roads and trails: newly emancipated Black people without homes, jobs or money; white farmers and townspeople driven out of Georgia by Sherman’s March; former Confederate soldiers who have lost their lost cause; and Florida’s usual complement of grifters and con artists, licking their chops at so many potential victims (such as a solitary boy with stolen money stashed in his backpack).
Gussie has no map or directions, just the name of Searle’s estate, Ivory Shoals, and a vague location near “the Bay of Tampa.” Florida has few roads anyway, and Gussie knows he needs to avoid them, because he knows Rye will send a formidable bounty hunter named August after him.
So the boy follows trails and tracks across the northern end of the peninsula, walking for hours each day through forests and swamps and, always, clouds of relentless mosquitoes. He sometimes runs out of food and water and sinks into a hallucinatory state, but often the kindness of strangers — usually women — saves him for the next leg of his trip.
Brandon also writes about what Gussie will find when he gets to Ivory Shoals. Searle is indeed a good man, but he has another son. Julius is in his 20s, born from a contentious marriage, a snob practically from birth, as a child “already both wryly pleased with himself and terminally bored.”
Julius has no love for Florida, as he explains to a bartender: “You look down, you see a snake. You look up, you see an illiterate. You sit at table, you see cornbread.”
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“I’m partial to cornbread,” the bartender replies, but that’s not enough for Julius. During the war, he told his father he was joining the Confederate Army — but instead fled all the way to San Francisco, where his luck has turned pretty sordid.
The only person who knows Julius’ secret is Abraham, Searle’s devoted servant for a couple of decades and now the old man’s only companion at Ivory Shoals. Abraham intercepts a letter Gussie sends to Searle explaining his quest; he doesn’t tell the old man about the boy, but does write to Julius. That sends the older son on a headlong journey (or as headlong as it can be via stagecoach, train, horseback and finally muleback) across the country to protect his inheritance from an interloper, no matter how dire the cost. The situation brings some soul-searching for Abraham as well.
Brandon lives in Minnesota but is a Florida native, born and raised around Tampa Bay, from Bradenton to New Port Richey. (The location of Ivory Shoals isn’t pinpointed, but it’s near the gulf and about a day’s ride on horseback north of Tampa.)
The picaresque structure of the book lets Brandon move Gussie through encounters with many characters and settings. The author writes lyrically of natural Florida, even its perilous parts, in descriptions rich with detail: “Gussie said amen and nodded his head to no one and then fell to his usual pace, picking up and setting down his callused heels through greens of cinnamon ferns filled with hundreds upon hundreds of white-streaming spider lilies. The pines, always picketing the world. Again, the gothic oaks.”
Brandon gives us plenty of memorable characters, too, from the villainous bounty hunter August, the kind of guy who snacks on pickled pig’s eyes, to the resourceful war widow Miss Elam and a Black Union veteran called Acey who thinks nothing of facing unarmed a band of thieves to recover a watch for a skinny white boy he just met.
“His mother had taught him to be sparing of those deemed vile and leery of angels,” Brandon writes of Gussie, and it’s solid advice.
Ivory Shoals is a bracing mix of Florida history and fleet adventure, livened with dry wit and a tender regard for its characters. Take a walk across the state with Gussie — you won’t regret it.
By John Brandon
McSweeney’s, 250 pages, $26
John Brandon will be in conversation with Times book editor Colette Bancroft about Ivory Shoals at a virtual event hosted by Oxford Exchange Books at 6 p.m. June 23. The talk is free; register and order books at oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.