Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Citrus County

by John Brandon

It's been a while since I've read a novel that is so straight-forward and entertaining, while also beguilingly disturbing and haunting.  Citrus County is a portrait of a forgotten region of Florida.  Too swampy to be infested with tourists, and too out of the usual hurricane path to ever get on the news, this is a dilapidated, rather hopeless region in a state that has become the poster child for the recession.

The book focuses on three people, and how their lives intertwine through the actions of one of them.  Toby is an orphan and a troublemaker in school.  He excels at getting detention, and feels very disconnected from the world around him (which consists of school and a crumbling house in the woods, where he lives with his suicidal uncle).  Shelby is a girl in Toby's class.  She's new to the County, and Toby doesn't know what to do about the fact that she's interested in him.  Their teacher is Mr. Hibma, a man who was once very much in love with his own genius, but has now slowly had to come to grips with the fact that he's a sub-par middle school teacher in the middle of nowhere.

One day, Toby decides to kidnap Shelby's little sister Kaley.  He abducts her from her own bed, and hides her in an abandoned bunker he's discovered in the woods.  This is not exactly an act of malice or deviance - he's jealous that Shelby has someone in her life that she can be close to.  Strangely, this secret act draws Shelby closer to him, but also causes Toby to begin to have some feelings for other people.

The book is pretty disturbing, but achingly funny.  I love the scenes with Mr. Hibma, who, when forced to coach girls' basketball, employs cosmetics and personal grooming as an offensive strategy.  He fantasizes about killing one of his colleagues, a complicated plot that involves first befriending her to allay any eventual suspicions.

I found that I began to really like these characters, and when things start to come together at the end of the book, I found myself rooting for all of them.  The people that fill this book are quite complex, and Brandon's casual, easy prose make the book a pleasure to read.  Recommended.

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