Dangers lurk everywhere for the natives in “Florida,” Lauren Groff’s second story collection. There are alligators, panthers, snakes. Even on the most casual stroll through a gentrifying neighborhood, you need to watch out for the blistering heat, stray dogs that attack. Car-swallowing sinkholes gape open. Then there’s the matter of thieves, stalkers, rapists.
Luckily for the characters in these 11 finely crafted stories, the things they dread don’t always materialize — with the exception of the hurricanes, which arrive regularly enough that you’d think these hapless women would listen to weather advisories and avoid getting stuck in life-threatening conditions. Groff is most fascinated by the fear itself. Her morose protagonists drink too much wine as they fret about everything from global warming to the daily hazards confronting their vulnerable children.
Indeed, nothing seems to get Groff’s imagination soaring like the mistreatment of a minor, especially a child’s abandonment. The mother in “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” just walks away, leaving her son with a cold, inattentive, snake-obsessed father. The poor kid plays alone or with a procession of puppies: “Inevitably, the dogs would run down to the edge of the swamp, and one of the fourteen- or fifteen-foot alligators would get them.”
In another story, a babysitter finds that her charges’ mother will not be coming home — she has been arrested for prostitution. Even when a call to Family Protective Services is not required, the mothers are decidedly not the PTA paragons who bake yummy treats for the kindergarten Halloween party. The narrator of “The Midnight Zone” suffers a debilitating concussion while attempting to change a lightbulb at a vacation cabin, “so far from humanity in all that Florida waste.” Her husband has — of course! — left for some emergency business back home, and there’s no cellphone reception, so the kids have to take care of her: “I had begun shaking very hard, which my children, sudden gentlemen, didn’t mention.”
Groff bestows the tales of threatened kids with the surreal sheen of fairy tales. The two sisters in one of the strongest stories, “Dogs Go Wolf,” are left alone in another swampy, isolated cabin, starving, without water or electricity. They eat cherry ChapStick, hide in caves and grow ever weaker, unsure whether they’ll ever be found.
Hunger is also at the heart of the eerie “Above and Below,” in which a young woman, having lost both her graduate student funding and her boyfriend, becomes homeless. Unwashed and ashamed, she lurks around her old university campus. For most of us, Groff suggests, such a slide from comfort is possible. Even as an adult, the woman still mourns the failure of her family to nurture her. “The police must have found the abandoned station wagon and traced it; someone must have called. Her mother would think of murder or abduction. . . . Maybe, the girl thought with a pulse of spite, fear had finally awakened her mother. Maybe she was scouring the state for her, even now.”
Several of the stories concern a writer who, like Groff herself, lives in Florida and has two young sons. The stories that remain in the safety of the upper middle class (“Privilege. Sorry,” one woman jokes ) are weaker and tend to run together, like outtakes from an unfinished longer project. They share a wry, elliptical voice like that of Rachel Cusk, whose work often springs from a similar autobiographical bent. The mother in “Yport,” one of the three stories set outside the Sunshine State, is supposedly researching a biography of Guy de Maupassant in France, but mostly she just tends to her bored boys and worries about the intrusions of her smarmy landlord. Eventually, she admits that “she doesn’t belong in France, perhaps she never did; she was always simply her flawed and neurotic self, even in French. Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”
Groff is careful to live up to the collection’s title by including at least passing references to all parts of the state, from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to the “queer dank musk” of Central Florida, where “people decorated their yards with big rocks and believed they could talk to God,” and Sarasota, so tony and sedate it “barely qualified.”
While these stories don’t always achieve the psychological depth of Groff’s novels, there’s serious pleasure to be had in her precise descriptions of landscape. “After a storm,” she writes, “the sunlight in this town pours upward as though radiating from the ground, and the sudden beauty of the stucco and Spanish moss is a hard punch at the center of the heart.”
Her characters may complain, but Groff is clearly drawn to the state’s bizarre lushness. With this collection she stakes her claim to being Florida’s unofficial poet laureate, as Joan Didion is for California.
Lisa Zeidner’s last novel was “Love Bomb.” She teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers University at Camden.
By Lauren Groff
Riverhead. 275 pp. $27