Review by Sean Ennis
John Brandon’s second novel, Citrus County, is, on its surface, a typical sort of coming of age novel. Fourteen year old Toby wishes for a more exciting life in rural Florida, tries ineptly to understand Shelby, a potential love interest, and battles his superiors with both apathy and cunning. But early on in the novel, Toby commits an act he himself evaluates as “evil”–the kidnapping of a toddler–and the novel immediately takes on much higher stakes. This is not Holden Caulfield whining about bathroom graffiti, but rather the story of a young boy truly exploring what he might be capable of, the ease of achieving it, the repercussions of his “evil” actions, and the more frightening realization that there may be none at all.
But Toby’s crime is not the only drama worth following in this novel, and one of its pleasures is the way in which Brandon has populated this downtrodden county. There is Toby’s Uncle Neal who eats frozen tater-tots, and brews hemlock in a shed as a sort of existential exercise. There is Mr. Hibma, Toby’s teacher, who vacillates from despising his “kiss-ass” students, to advising the girls’ basketball team he is coaching to have makeovers as a form of competitive intimidation, to imagining the murder of one of his colleagues as a sort of artistic performance. And finally there is Shelby, the brightest girl in Citrus County and genuine lover of Toby, who is desperate to find a better life with her aunt in Iceland. As wild as these descriptions may sound, these characters truly come to life on the page, and while they may seem like easy targets for mockery, there is a tenderness about the way Brandon treats all of them, such that the reader find themselves rooting for this gaggle of misfits. The author loves these loveless characters, and it is infectious.
A note about Brandon’s style seems necessary here. There is a casualness with which the story is told, perhaps reflecting the Florida heat, that serves the subject matter well. In a novel about watching many characters waiting for something to happen, Brandon tracks lots of seemingly undramatic scenes—making a purchase at the used hardware store, a discussion behind the middle school bleachers, long walks through the woods—to great effect. His prose has a way of making the boredom and restlessness of these characters interesting, which is no small feat. Each sentence is a small surprise. And the real strength of the novel is his insight into the adolescent mind. Much of the novel involves the exploration of the inner lives of Toby and Shelby, and he gives these fourteen year olds the strangeness and sophistication that they deserve.
I was once told that the key to effective setting for a story is to take your reader somewhere they have never been and would never want to go. Citrus County fits the bill for sure. But with Brandon as our guide, it is a difficult novel to put down as it charges to its surprising and troubling end.