Citrus County

By John Brandon

McSweeney's Books
July 2010, Hardcover
224 pages


Reviewed by Stacy Patton


Described purely in terms of plot, John Brandon's second novel, Citrus County, could sit comfortably on the shelves next to the most prurient commercial fiction. Toby, a teenage boy, kidnaps a classmate's four-year-old sister and keeps her in a bunker in the woods. Shelby, the classmate whose sister he takes, has a crush on Toby. You could imagine the jacket copy: Shelby Register's been targeted, and by someone closer than she imagines. Will she discover her sister's kidnapper and find her sister before it's too late?

But Citrus County isn't that kind of book. Although Brandon borrows familiar tropes, he focuses not on the discovery and dissection of the crime itself but on the intricate psychology of the criminal, his victim, and . . . their geography teacher. Like a traditional crime novel, the question of rescue in Citrus County is omnipresent, but unlike a traditional crime novel, Brandon places that question in the background. There, it constantly unsettles, because although we very much want the rescue to happen, we find ourselves as or more concerned with all the ways the kidnapping has complicated the lives of the three main characters—we become as interested in the effects of the kidnapping as the crime itself. Brandon puts these characters in close proximity and rather than use that proximity primarily to create suspense, he uses it to expose the character's secret lives—the accumulated joys and insults, unarticulated desires, the particular texture of their unique experience. He forces us to explore the sometimes ugly gap between who we think we are and how the world perceives us. Commercial fiction, this is not.

Much of the book concerns these characters’ struggles to exercise control on their lives. Shelby, a 14 year-old girl with a recently-dead mother and a devoted father working hard "to be twice the parent," suffers losses that are more than anyone deserves, but she meets her fate actively and aggressively at every turn. In the aftermath of the kidnapping, fed up with the television crews camped in front of her house, she marches outside and before anyone realizes what’s happening, hoists a camera on a tripod into the air: "Shelby flexed her knees, flung the camera upward with all she had, and shuffled to the side. There was the crunch."  She skips school for days at a time, and continues her romantic pursuit of Toby. She knows nothing of what he’s done to her, of course, only that his constancy is a mystery she wants to solve. She confronts him across the divide of a chain link fence one afternoon:

Shelby could hear the dry grass crunching under his sneakers. Here he was. Nothing had happened to him. He was still Toby.

She looked into his deadpan brown eyes and they seemed to know everything. Neither of them spoke. Toby’s face was waffled with the fence’s shadow. For a moment Shelby forgot to think about herself—about her father, her sister, how she’d left the sliding door open, how she’d let her mother down...

The PE coach sounded his whistle. Sixth period was ending. Shelby and Toby knew they had to speak. They had to finish the moment.

"I’m still coming after you," Shelby told him. "’I’m going to pick up where I left off."

"I’ll be all the all the places I normally am," Toby said.

Mr. Hibma, the geography teacher, takes a decidedly more passive approach: he "sometimes viewed himself as a character in a novel." Mr. Hibma rolls with what life has given him, and thus far, remains largely unchanged. He was abducted as an infant by a hospital nurse and later returned unharmed; he inherited a substantial and unexpected amount of money, which he blew on whores and European travel; he chose to take up residence in Citrus County by throwing a dart at a map. His current efforts at directing the course of his own life consist mainly of contemplating how he might murder the teacher in the classroom next door.

Toby, an orphaned boy living with his crazy uncle in the woods, seems trapped between two lives—a normal one and a criminal one. He disassociates from his own actions, as if what he does is something outside himself. On the night he takes Shelby’s little sister he watches through the lighted windows as the girls and their father play board games. "It was an adorable little scene and it could have included Toby. He could’ve been sitting in that fourth chair. Shelby had invited him." He is as mystified by her as she is by him. After issuing her invitation to game night in the school lunchroom, Shelby let go of his arm,

tossed her hair and shuffled off in her boots, leaving Toby to stand there rubbing his biceps like a little kid who’d just gotten a flu shot, like Shelby’s fingerprints had been burned into his tender flesh, like he had no idea who Shelby really was.

Whether Toby is truly powerless against his own "lesser urges" is for the reader to decide. Is Toby sociopathic, or merely damaged and immature? Is he the delinquent of his reputation, or something worse? Can he be saved? Do we want him to be?

Repeatedly Brandon exposes the secret stories behind public perceptions, repeatedly he underscores that there are multiple versions of every person, every event, every place. Strange settings—with both real and imagined lives—include a warehouse filled with shoes and Bibles, a mysterious bunker, and a tennis court hidden in the woods, where Toby and Shelby share their first kiss:

"A while back a millionaire lived in Citrus County," Shelby said. "His mistress loved tennis, so he had this court built out in the woods so they could play in secret."

"Wow," Toby said. He knew this story was false. This tennis court, along with a half-built golf course Toby sometimes walked through, were remnants of an unfinished development.

In a similar way, the characters of Citrus County are people whose public lives we recognize: the straight-A student, the disaffected high school teacher, the wounded loner. And yet, the intimate view that Brandon gives  us of these "types" begins to feel entirely unfamiliar. As the novel progresses, many of the things we think we understand become incomprehensible.

The pleasures of Brandon’s work are multiple: an unflinching portrayal of the brutality and tenderness human beings are capable of, fierce prose, and sharp and surprising dialogue:

The gas station. Scant light scarring the sky. Toby planted his feet and took a full breath, the air tart with petroleum. He saw the pay phone over near the air and vacuum. He was as weak as ever. Anything could make him weak—the wrong smell, the wrong tint in the sky, thinking about all the dragging afternoons he’d endured in his lifetime and all the afternoons to come. He was addicted to petty hoodlumism. He rested what was left of his soda on the metal sill, picked up the phone, dropped in coins, and dialed a number at random. A man with a Northern accent answered and Toby asked him if he believed his life was worth a damn, If he honestly believed anyone liked him.

"Who is this?" the man said, eager, like he got prank calls all the time.

"Nobody you’d understand," Toby told him.

Citrus County is an uncomfortable book. Brandon makes us want Toby's salvation as much as we want his victim's rescue; he makes us wish for Shelby to both find her sister and keep her boyfriend. In Citrus County, the truth of the kidnapping is never known to anyone except the perpetrator—and the reader. The novel is disturbing because that knowledge feels something like complicity. But this is what books are meant to do. They are meant to show us what we can't otherwise see, to make the world new, and strange, and to surprise and disturb and delight us. Brandon has written a complicated and beautiful and disturbing book, one worth any serious reader's time.