Looking at the state geographically, Florida should be paradise: it’s full of beaches, bright walls, fusion menus and lush greens. But it is also host to hanging chads, Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman, and sinkholes. Take a headline with any sort of strange violence or revenging landscape and chances are it’s a Florida story. The state is home to extremes: extremely idealized pleasures and extreme violence. John Brandon finds the sweet spot between extremes in his stories. Even the ones that don’t take place in Florida seem to know that there is pure happiness somewhere, anywhere but where the character finds herself. Brandon’s stories aren’t about settling for an unhappy life, but about realizing a certain limit to happiness and then trying to reach and hold that tenuous line.
In his second novel, Citrus County, Brandon is quick to tell us that this is not the Florida of beaches, bikinis or Disney princesses:
…there was nature because there were no beaches and no amusement parks and no hotels and no money. There were rednecks and manatees and sinkholes. There were insects, not gentle crickets but creatures with stingers and pincers and scorn in their hearts.
Brandon is quick to dispel any idealization of the setting. Ideals are fuzzy, filled with generalities, and Brandon’s strength is in his abundant and well-chosen details. He rounds his characters with details that are surprising but communicate the person fully. The eleven stories in Further Joy, his first story collection, show just how many ways characters can grind through reality’s many challenges, and how reality grinds on their aspirations. This has been Brandon’s project through his first three novels and it results in a satisfying story collection in which the characters are all aspiring to something even as the world beats them back.
Brandon’s first novel, Arkansas, is a crime novel in the vein of Elmore Leonard. The criminals are witty and their deaths are gruesome. It’s a fast-paced and funny book. The three main characters are a criminal duo—one is book-smart and one is street-smart—and the mysterious kingpin, whose background and motivations are explored in chapters written in the second person. As Brandon explores the growth of a criminal network in the 1990s American South, no character reaches glory, but every character is realistic enough not to be surprised by this. This book is about finding the minor triumphs among major disappointments.
Citrus County could also be classified as a crime novel, although, maybe because the characters are a tween and a middle-school teacher, it’s a more domestic crime novel than Arkansas. At the center of the action are Toby, the middle-schooler without much of a home life, who kidnaps the younger sister of a girl in his class on whom he has a crush; and the teacher, Mr. Hibna, who plots to murder his enthusiastic and capable colleague. Toby and Mr. Hibna are analogous in a way, as they are both filled with cynicism to the point that they destroy the symbols of traditional values: the complete family, the dedicated teacher.
Through all his books, Brandon’s observations are simultaneously hilarious and depressing. The main difference between the tones of his first two books is that Arkansas is about a heartless world that will remain heartless despite all efforts to beautify it, while Citrus County is a heartwarming tale that takes place in an otherwise heartless world. The Citrus County characters are finally redeemed. Despite their scars and secrets, you can see a positive change in their destinies.
In A Million Heavens, his third and most recent novel, Brandon departs from his first two in quite a few ways. While the first two novels teeter on realistic worlds, Heavens dives right into magic realism. Brandon has said that the setting of New Mexico called for a magic realist story, and that’s another departure—a move away from the South. The narratives of Arkansas and Citrus County follow multiple characters through weaving storylines, but Heavens blows that open to the nth degree. The novel is a collage of narratives titled for each character. It opens with The Wolf (an actual wolf) as he circles through the town, and The Wolf’s sections follow his wanderings throughout the novel.
The central event of Heavens surrounds a boy who falls into a coma after performing a brief, improvised, prodigious piece of piano music during his first lesson. A group that gathers nightly to hold a vigil outside the hospital gives access to many other quirky characters, such as a woman who ran away from her pampered L.A. life and is currently living with a teenage lover, the girlfriend of a recently deceased local musician, the mayor’s regular prostitute, and others. The deceased musician makes several appearances in the novel as he is stuck in an ever-changing room in which certain objects appear—a fully stocked bar, a guitar, an oversized belt buckle, a leather chair—and then disappear. The song he writes in this room, a “song about a neighborhood that held all of your history and none of your pain,” makes its way into the girlfriend’s consciousness, and it inspires her to sing a song on the guitar, which The Wolf overhears, and “if it ended in a human minute, that would be too soon and if it ended when morning broke that would be too soon.”
While the supernatural elements of Heavens allow Brandon to explore different emotional and physical terrain, he is still most entertaining and insightful when calling attention to his characters’ daily trials and betrayals. The least satisfying aspect of the novel is the magical power ascribed to music as it connects the dead musician to the living world, resolves the grief of his girlfriend, and empowers the boy to become a symbol of hope for the failing town.
For the most part, Further Joy doesn’t need magic to give its characters hope. These are all good people on hard times, and they believe—or over the course of the story come to believe—that things will get better. Often they have brought their hardships on themselves. Other times, the pit they seek to crawl out of is as essential to them as the place where they were born.
The few stories in the collection with magical elements include: a clairvoyant young woman negotiating the adoration of her on-again-off-again boyfriend; a man recently left by his wealthy, aimless girlfriend, who finds actual physical brains scattered on the floor of his apartment; and a town visited by mysterious abductions. Each magical story is grounded in the unfortunate, realistic details of the characters’ lives. For example, the woman’s clairvoyance represents a part of herself that has been secret from everyone; when she decides to take back her boyfriend, she will finally share her secret with him. But in this story the magic ends up coming off as a gimmick. Despite the extraneous magic, the stories continue to show Brandon’s characteristic skill in depicting places and people that are both surprising and familiar. While the magic is not surprising, the range of disgruntlements among characters is always satisfyingly expansive.
Further Joy opens with a story of a man returned to his small hometown after losing his successful finance job in Atlanta. He had finally escaped the small-town politics of high school love and college football. His financial ruin was brought on by playing the system, something that everybody did—“the rule he’d broken was one he’d broken a dozen times before, that everybody broke”—but this time he got caught. Back home, he finds small success in playing the system of underground sports betting, but the sense is that his new game will ruin him in new and further ways.
Dramatic irony of this sort is a constant theme in the first half of the collection. But then the tone of the stories pivots, and by the later stories you start to believe in the characters’ further joy.
About the middle of the collection, where the stories shift from condemned endings to ambiguous hopefulness to a sort of resigned shrug in the direction of good things to come among all the bad, is a story titled “Prospectus,” featuring a boy similar to Toby in Citrus County. They both live with inattentive uncles and are outcasts with few friends. But where Toby thinks he is smarter than everyone around him and lashes out in hopelessness, Marky constantly comes up with schemes and business models, working with what he’s given to potentially raise his status from swamp poverty. The story opens with Marky at the plate in the last baseball game of his youth against an all-star pitcher. Marky is not a good hitter but he is desperate to not go out watching the ball. He sticks his bat out over the plate in a half swing, not a bunt but a halted position of a swing, and waits for the pitcher to accidently hit the bat with his fastball. It works, and you get the sense that as long as Marky thinks outside the box and works with what he’s given, he will always get around the bases, unconventionally but intact.
Brandon’s stories are simultaneously strange and familiar because his characters do weird things that make sense. His prose describes mundanities with a keen understanding of the details that make them important, details we might have missed if looking at them on our own. His fictional worlds are full but swiftly crafted, and there is joy in entering the world through his eyes.
In “Naples. Not Italy,” the TV is always on, muted, during a period of heavy rain. A man and his wife take in their friend, who has just left her husband. Their attitude to the events on TV shows their generosity toward others, and also hints at their creeping resignation toward their place in life.
The TV shows us which priests and congressmen and starlets can’t stop doing the wrong things. We make a point not to root against them, to remember that everyone needs to make a living. The ways these people make theirs comes with extraordinary demands.
The TV shows us the world of the young, too, and they’re the sorriest young people yet – empty of righteous hatred, casual in their loves, seeking a thousand shallow alliances. The young are easy to make fun of, but this fact does not comfort us in the least. They still have youth, regardless of what they do with it, and so we envy them.
Like the TV viewers, Brandon is generous to his characters. The collection forgives them for making mistakes because their bad decisions were not made maliciously. People fail simply because it is hard to succeed. Further Joy is a celebration of getting up every day to try against the onslaught of shark attacks and dissolved marriages.