The Rumpus Book Club: Blogging Citrus County #1

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Welcome to the first post of the Rumpus Book Club Blog, where a Rumpus contributor reads the book of the month and regularly blogs about his or her reactions. It’s the first move in a conversation that we want you to join. Today, Rumpus Film editor Jeremy Hatch on what he hopes for from the first book club pick, Citrus County, based on his recent one-night stand with Brandon’s first novel, Arkansas.

Have you received your copy of Citrus County yet? Are you already reading it? Let us know when you’ve started.

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I just read John Brandon’s first novel, Arkansas, not exactly in one sitting, but pretty close: late last night and early this morning, a sitting interrupted only by sleep, breakfast, and trips to the kitchen for coffee and gin — that’s gin at night and coffee in the morning, I hasten to clarify — and the book was in every way as wonderful as I’d expected, from the excerpt that appeared in McSweeney’s the other year. Reading a book in that way is like watching a really long movie, in this case, a humorously noirish one about two guys who get sucked into the drug trade in Arkansas. In fact it’s a lot like one of the Coen brothers’ early movies. People get killed with a casserole dish and a crowbar, and bodies are buried in the woods and a car gets sunk in a swamp, and the most likable character meets a bad end, and there’s love and lust and a guy who worries about his family. Basically everything you could ask for in a novel.

But to get back to the bit where I fell asleep. Right before I drifted off, I read the scene near the end of Part Two, where Johnna — who will eventually become a sexy nurse — is getting asked to resign from one of her first jobs by a manager named Toby. Who spies on her from his office, because he was “bewitched, smitten, whatever you wanted to call it. Instead of simply asking her on a date the first day she’d showed up at the warehouse, he’d let himself become ruined with obsession.” (Great line.) Then I fell asleep. The thing about reading a book this way, with eight hours of sleep for an intermission, is that it affects your dreams. I had a dream about my cat — who, it happens, is named Toby — and then I had this other dream where I was making coffee at some kind of office job. And, undoubtedly, a sexy nurse made an extended visit at some point, because I’m prone to such dreams. The point is, this is a very minor episode in the novel as a whole (it occupies a single page and has no consequences), and I would have forgotten completely about it had I not stopped there to sleep, and therefore read it a couple times.

So then, I got a surprise when I picked up Citrus County for the first time just now and read the back (it should be noted that, although you will have hardbacks, I was provided with a bound galley, and therefore your cover text may differ):

There shouldn’t be a Citrus County. Teenage romance should be difficult, but not this difficult. Boys like Toby should cause trouble, but not this much. The moon should glow gently over children safe in their beds. Uncles in their rockers should be kind. Teachers should guide and inspire. Manatees should laze and palm trees sway and snakes keep to their shady spots under the azalea thickets. The air shouldn’t smell like a swamp. The stars should twinkle. Shelby should be her own hero, the first hero of Citrus County. She should rescue her sister from underground, rescue her father from despair, rescue Toby from his life. She should make her destiny into a hero’s destiny.

Toby! That name again! So, is this meant to be the same character? Are these stories linked? Are we going to learn how it is that Toby the office manager got to be creepy? Or is it just that Brandon always liked the name and wanted to use it more in this book?

Arkansas was definitely a page-turner, by which I mean it intimated certain fates for its characters, often fates so dire that I was always flipping ahead to see what would happen, so that I could come back with their fates known and settle back into my absorption with the text. Suspense tends to make me impatient, which I know is weird, but there you have it, and it often distracted me. But I always count that as a good thing, because if I’m that distracted by suspense, it means I care about the characters a lot, which isn’t so easy to do.

What can I expect on that score from Citrus County? The back-cover text doesn’t seem to promise a suspenseful read. It seems to promise some kind of coming-of-age story centered around a girl named Shelby. Which I’m really looking forward to, given how great Brandon is with description, and these memorable cappers of his like “ruined with obsession,” these little tossed-off, pithy lines that perfectly evoke a character or a setting or a situation, and often make you laugh too. Here’s another one of my favorites from Arkansas: “The only advantage cops had was time; they waited and waited, not even knowing what for, and then eventually you screwed yourself.”

So these are my expectations for Citrus County: characters I care about so much that suspense will make me impatient; a text full of dead-on evocations and memorable phrases suitable for quoting; dark humor; and something about a kid named Toby, who may or may not bear any relation to the office creep of Arkansas.

The book is divided into three basically-equal parts (Part One is a bit longer than the other two), so I’m planning to do three posts about the book, one about each part, over the next two weeks, leaving several days between each one. The final post will go up several days before the author discussion, so you’ll have plenty of time to gather your thoughts and discuss them if you like, before meeting John Brandon himself in a chatroom.

So, to you. Have you read Arkansas? If so, how is that informing your expectations of Citrus County? What do you think of John Brandon’s writing? Let’s discuss in the comments.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →