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Another fine mess

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Citrus County - John Brandon There are a small clutch of writers* whose prose and plotting is refractory: you slide into a sentence (or the story) with a false sense of security, subject and verb doing what subjects and verbs do, but then suddenly you're upside-down, 30 degrees shy of where you'd expected to end up, split into a variety of tones and hues.

John Brandon can write.

A shopkeeper in rural Citrus County accosts the two early-teen protagonists: "'Please don't steal anything'. . . . He sighed theatrically and returned to the back room." A few moments later, he comes back out, "tape gun in one hand," and asks

"What happened?"

Shelby paused. "I zeroed in on the goods I wish to purchase is what happened."

The guy edged closer. When he saw that Shelby had a flag on the counter and cash in her hand, he relaxed the grip on the tape gun and stood up straight.

"Wow," he said. "You two aren't nomadic vandals. You're a nice young couple."

Actually, they aren't. Or, well... they are, but at this moment bad things have been done by one and are being fantasized by both. The "flag" Shelby is buying says "LICENSED HANDJOB ACCEPTANCE STATION," and in a few chapters she will post it on the door of a church, along with a note indicating her own guilt. People do bad things in Citrus County, or obsessively plot to do them, but they're seeking some form of real human contact, even if it's charged with revulsion and fear and judgment.

I loved these characters--even Toby, the "bad boy," and even Mr. Hibma, the scornful mess of a geography teacher. This book is often terribly sad, and there were long moments in the closing stretch where I was frightened, worried, wound up in the sadness that afflicts these characters--and is caused by them. Even as, page by page, Brandon's prose spun that melancholy and dread into sly sweet humor. I don't mean that shlocky woe tinged with whimsy, nor do I mean David-Lynchian eccentricity -- no, this tonal juggling act is tougher. The wit--the often very funny--echoes the existentially very sad yet limns the potential for escape.

Listen, I won't lie: the central event is a crime and it's a dark one, and the novel hinges on a protracted suspense about what will come of that. Many readers will get stuck there, hating these characters, seeing only bleakness. But hang in there. They're not nomadic vandals, and this isn't grim irony. Brandon is a bleakly compassionate writer, with a lovely ear for adolescent emotion. It's a really damn good book.

*said clutch to include Joy Williams, my personal idol Thomas McGuane, Denis Johnson, and the reigning monarch of the form Flannery O'Connor.