I’ve been fumbling for an appealing pitch for John Brandon’s novel Citrus County. Its basic premise is a tough sell for the over-fourteen crowd: a pubescent bad boy has a crush on a bookish good girl. But the pitch is even tougher when I turn to the meat of the plot: the aforementioned youth kidnaps the girl’s four-year-old sister, stuffs her in a duffel bag, then hides the toddler in a dank cellar in the woods. Brandon makes no moves to soften the blow of the abduction; without the solace of some light-hearded interpretation, the reader can only attempt to digest the brutal act and its aftermath.
The novel offers much more than its central perversion. First and foremost, Brandon’s innovative prose is engrossing in its own right. It feels fluid and effortless, yet each chapter stuns with lines of razor-sharp wit and poignancy. Suffice to say, it would do Citrus County injustice to dwell exclusively on its plot. Nonetheless, and not only for the sake of filtering out the morally squeamish, it seems worthwhile to begin a discussion of Citrus County by laying out its horrifying premise from the onset. Because while the book is sweet, funny, and not as upsetting as the above summary might suggest, it never relinquishes its dark side.
Described by one critic as “Southern Gothic goes to middle school,” Citrus County, like its Gulf Coast namesake, feels both alien and alarmingly familiar. Brandon, who grew up just south of Citrus County, depicts the town’s drifting manatees, vicious bugs, and unruly flora in the intoxicating, exaggerated style of the grotesque. The novel’s setting is a humid dream-nightmare of dark, twisting woods and abandoned hideaways—all alongside the ubiquitous mundanity of Styrofoam, strip malls, and the soda upon which thirteen-year-old Toby appears to subsist. Both surreal and banal, Citrus County is the perfect stage for Brandon’s ode to the weirdness of the human mind.
Brandon’s treatment of the novel’s three main characters—confused adolescents Toby and Shelby, and Mr. Hibma, their equally confused geography teacher—is unusual and profoundly affecting. Despite their distinct voices, all three seem connected by a common, troubling thread: an urge to define or redefine themselves by testing their capacity for evil. Each narrator is gripped by antisocial impulses, ranging in severity from “petty hoodlumism” to murder. It’s strange to liken the wholesome Shelby’s feeble attempts at delinquency with Mr. Hibma’s homicidal fantasies (let alone Toby’s actualized crime), but it is this very dissonance that highlights the psychological parallels between them. Even more interesting is the way in which the moral discrepancies between the protagonists implicitly involve the reader.
It seems that the most intuitive way to elicit sympathy for a troubled character would be to track his thought process in exhausting detail—to thoroughly explain, if not justify, the otherwise incomprehensible. Citrus County takes a different route, and the effect is unnerving. Brandon certainly offers an up-close view of his characters, whose quirks and secrets are consistently engaging and, at times, embarrassingly intimate. However, Citrus County stops short of rationalizing their thoughts and behaviors. After days of reflection, I still can’t explain why Toby—a troublemaker but no sadist—kidnaps Shelby’s sister. Interestingly, Toby doesn’t seem to understand either.
Brandon is deeply attuned to Citrus County and its dramas, but he doesn’t seem omniscient so much as voyeuristic. His lens zooms in on certain scenes, like Toby’s interactions at the hardware store where he thoughtfully selects supplies for his prisoner. Other important sections are omitted altogether; perhaps most notably, we never see Toby with his young victim in the bunker. We watch him go about his daily routine, trying his hand at pole vaulting and dating while the toddler remains underground in the woods. We admonish Toby and the author for ignoring the little girl’s point of view, but in this and other narrative gaps, we find opportunities to project ourselves into uncomfortable but uncannily familiar psychological states.
Brandon’s inventive brand of storytelling places a great deal of empathic responsibility on the reader, putting moral logic on hold in favor of an unconventional sense of compassion. Somehow both absurd and intensely intuitive, Citrus County challenges the ways we judge ourselves and others.