I think I heard about Citrus County from a Buzz Feed-esque list containing “15 Examples of Modern Southern Gothic Literature.” Southern Gothic is one of my favorite things on Earth and I had just gotten back from a trip to Florida, so this seemed like the natural progression of things. I was nervous, however – I’ve got it in my head that something is not truly Southern Gothic unless it was written before 1963. This rule is arbitrary – I made it up – but it seems right, somehow.
I will be revising that rule thanks to John Brandon’s sophomore novel – Citrus County is so good.
The setting was vibrant and dangerous in all of the ways you want the backwoods of Florida to be. In an early college fiction workshop, a teacher told me that I needed to tone it down a bit – I was describing unfortunate scenarios and places so grotesquely that I was verging on the insensitive. This really stuck with me; the last thing I want to do is alienate or belittle readers. Brandon is a master of finding this balance. He can describe the forlorn, impoverished quality of Uncle Neal’s house without being offensive. He can describe the tacky neighborhood mall without seeming spiteful.
Sometimes the adolescent characters are more resolute than they should be. I was never really able to grasp how old Toby and Shelby are. We’re explicitly told what grade they’re in, but I don’t think that mattered. Sometimes they are simplistic and sometimes they are wise beyond their years. Perhaps this is the nature of of middle school though – a nonsensical combination of the complex and childlike. Toby and Shelby flit between adult conjectures and a child’s selfishness, often within the space of a sentence. If we are trying to stay within the Southern Gothic atmosphere, I would say that this characterization of Shelby and Toby as being serious, yet childlike fits well within the realm of the genre. Children and childlike figures are so prevalent in Southern Gothic literature (see: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) – they allow us to explore the simple truths Southern Gothic is fixated on in an unbiased, uncorrupted way. Southern Gothic is all about exploring the nastiest, most horrendous things through the clearest lens. Shelby and Toby allow us to do that, but it is still unsettling to continually question how old our main characters are.
I also noticed that many websites classify this novel as YA. That really surprised me! I guess it could be YA – there are young characters, the writing is accessible, but I thought that calling this YA was like calling The Heart is a Lonely Hunter YA. I just wasn't seeing it.
What most impressed me about Citrus County was Brandon’s ability to rationalize the horrific. I felt like Toby was almost justified in kidnapping Kaley. I never felt that he was committing evil. Horror, to me, is when you find yourself sympathizing with the heinous. I felt like the crime Toby committed was a key aspect to his development into an adult. I felt that it was a good thing that he kidnapped a girl – it showed him how to be himself. It provided Uncle Neal (one of my favorite characters) an outlet, even though that outlet was death. Somehow, this all seemed satisfying – it seemed right.