Friday, October 2, 2009

Discovering a mesmerizing novel: Florida

Last spring, I bought two books by a new-to-me author from the clearance shelves at Hastings. Her name is Christine Schutt, and I'd never heard of her. Besides the clearance price of $2.99, I remember two other things that drew me to the novel Florida: first, that's also the title of a Patty Griffin song I just adore, and second, among the collection of review quotes was one from John Ashbery. Now, Ashbery is a poet - one of the most respected living poets in America, with a career reaching back over 40 years. Unless it's from an author who writes both poetry and fiction (Margaret Atwood jumps to mind), you don't usually see praise from poets on the covers of novels. Ashbery called the book "an amazing achievement," said it had "the same brilliancy of close observation that distinguished her collection of stories Nightwork." Since Nightwork was also on the clearance shelf, I bought that, too.

After I finished reading Daphne, and before I received my copy of my book group's October selection, I decided to give Florida a try. High praise, apparently a "National Book Award Finalist" according to the seal on the front, and just over 150 pages -- just a quick novel in between my other reading "commitments."

I can't express how much I enjoyed the language in this book. The plot is quite straightforward, but the real pull of the book is young Alice's narration, her descriptions of what happens around her, and how she feels and reacts. As she grows older, her voice becomes more mature, more "knowing," but there is always a sense of dreamscape about things, a tension between what is real, what is believed to be real, and what is wished for.

I need to share some passages that struck and moved me.

I believed then that any gesture I made was felt; I believed I could make the unhappy happy just by my attentions.
"I think you're pretty," I said with my fist around the money of a compliment, but the veiled crone asked, "Who taught you to lie like that?" (p. 25)

"The reason we are rich," Aunt Frances said, "is because I am frugal."
Uncle Billy disagreed. He said, "The reason we are rich is because we are rich." (p. 41)

My father is a name and the black oily roots of hair in damp, creased places. My father is a cutout--stark, defined--a standard man as seen by me from behind. (p. 82)

The passing scenery is passing. (p. 82)

I was glad to be the one leaving--for camps and schools and college--but my intention was always to come back. (p. 83)

The urge to loll in a warm place is the same wherever I go. (p. 100)

I wander in bookstores; the fear of doing something ugly and private in front of everyone no longer seizes me. I have to summon it up for a fright, and I forget to summon it up. I am happy, happier. The newness of books for the young I teach, the way they read them as if no one before had ever rightly read them or understood them, the press and the pressure of loving books, a book, a book of poems, a poem and the poet who wrote it, and then the sorrow to discover the poet is dead! "We can only meet in air," says the dead poet. We mourn them, the students and I; they live on in their verses. I am the go-between in this romance, stalled in the clogged hallway between classes, in the breakup between classes. Even before they speak to me, they are out of breath and urgent and surprised by an older face close up. (pp. 152-153)

Last weekend, I returned a book to the library, and decided to stop by the Booktique to browse a little while. There's a bookcase with clearance items just inside the door -- fifty cents each, and usually nothing I want, but at that price I gotta look them over. When I saw the name Christine Schutt, and a title I didn't have, I snatched it up, and knew it was a wonderful day.

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