by John Brandon
Reviewed by Janet Potter
Citrus County is the story of a crime that tears apart middle school classmates Toby and Shelby. Toby is the criminal and Shelby is the victim, but Toby hasn't been caught. Actually, he and Shelby are dating. And their lives aren't torn apart in the sense that they become the center of a police investigation, or are ripped from their normal lives. They're torn apart because the original crime turns them into teenagers who live very comfortably with the worst incarnations of themselves.
John Brandon's portrait of these kids is not a nuanced, sympathetic one a la Dexter or The Sopranos, asking you to relate to, and subtly side with, the bad guys. He puts you inside the head of two very damaged teenagers who are capable of, and eager to do, pretty despicable things -- and then he leaves you there, looking around in stunned horror. Or at least I was horrified. What the book's jacket cryptically describes as "trouble" is an act of singular, detached cruelty enacted by Toby within the first fifty pages. He's been introduced as a delinquent. This is a pretty familiar character, a kid who doesn't have a good home life and gets a lot of detention, has longish hair and keeps to himself. You subconsciously assume that the novel is going to examine the crucial point in his youth when he determines what kind of man he's going to be. But then you realize he's just a total piece of shit. He does something horrible and he doesn't feel bad about it. Brandon's first novel, Arkansas, steers very clear of happy endings, so as soon as Citrus County took a dark turn, I knew it wasn't going to turn back.
In Arkansas, two young men find themselves mixed up in big-time drug dealing. "Find themselves" is the operative phrase -- they both have a casual relationship with ethics that leads the drug ring to choose them, and they don't bother to disagree with the choice. They're likable guys, though, and Brandon spends the book sketching their loyalties, morals, and affections in what is otherwise a bankrupt life. One of them even assumes that one day he'll get out of the game and lead an honest, prosperous life. It doesn't end well.
Citrus County pushes even further towards the fringes of civilization, but this time Brandon barely even hints at redemption. Citrus County, Florida has nothing remarkable about it except how unlike the other parts of Florida it is. It's on the Nature Coast, "a title of default; 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," a place where every plant is "blooming outrageously or rotting by the minute." The main characters -- Toby, Shelby, and their geography teacher, Mr. Hibma -- are all rotting by the minute.
They all feel confined by the small circumstances of their lives, but instead of trying to expand themselves or transcend the minutiae of it all, they turn inward, and tap into a darkness that makes them feel powerful. "Toby wasn't another hard-luck case," he tells himself at the beginning of the book, "He wasn't another marauding punk. He'd been acting like one, thus far, but he was destined for higher evil and he could feel that destiny close at hand. He was more terrible inside than every juvenile delinquent in the whole county put together."
So he commits a crime that hurts Shelby's family for two reasons. To prove to himself that he was more than those around him, and to hurt Shelby. Shelby's family moved to Citrus County after her mother died, and they are the picture of a caring family trying to move on. Her father takes his daughters on boat trips; they play board games on the porch. Shelby steps in as the family's caregiver, packing her father's lunch and taking care of her little sister while making straight As. Toby is drawn by her sincerity and her impermeability, but he knows that for them to be equals her veneer has to be shattered. According to his sick logic, that means he should destroy her life (without her knowing it was him, of course), and then stick around to be part of the broken version. What's even sicker is that it works.
The community rallies for a short while around Shelby's tragedy, but eventually the interest and compassion fades. (In Citrus County, good deeds always appear pale and disingenuous next to the pulsing momentum of malice.) Shelby takes advantage of the leeway provided by her victim status and shifts into delinquency, closer to Toby. She starts skipping school and her grades drop, but nobody bothers to punish her. She vandalizes local property and throws food in the face of a Christian girl who comes to her house to offer help. Just as Toby had hoped, she liberates herself from following the rules and realizes she doesn't miss them.
There are no latent feelings in Toby and Shelby. Every emotion or impulse is immediately weaponized. If someone is sad, something is about to get smashed. If someone is bored, something is about to get abandoned. If someone feels powerless, something horrible is about to happen.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hibma fantasizes about killing one of his coworkers. Like Toby, he turns to subversion to give himself a sense of authority over his own life. He doesn't eat with the other teachers, refuses to use his computer, and rarely teaches on his given subject, preferring to rant to his students. The characters of Citrus County chafe at how far they have to go to be recognized as different. The world wants Mr. Hibma to be a bored school teacher, Toby to be a troubled but harmless teen, and Shelby to be a heroic victim. They try to break out of these roles, but no one is deterred, still asking Mr. Hibma to coach basketball and Toby to try pole vaulting and giving Shelby free meals. Refused the recognition they feel their depravity deserves, they build it up as a source of inner pride. This seems more dangerous.
It's not an easy book. One doesn't want to imagine that cold-blooded quasi-sociopaths are on the local eighth grade track team. But Brandon's unflinching look at the devastated inner life of his characters is so unerring that it's hard to look away. Exactly as they planned, by unleashing their most macabre impulses these characters become more vibrant, impossible to ignore.