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John Brandon
Citrus County
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-1-934-78153-1
Publication Date: 07-06-2010
224 pages, $ 22
Date Reviewed: 09-19-2010

Index:  General Fiction  Mystery

There are places in this country where the landscape hurts your mind. Featureless, filthy, scrub forests, aging strip malls and busted houses dot the landscape. The roads are bad if they exist at all. The people who live here lead a hardscrabble life, barely making ends meet. Crime is petty. Families are splintered by economic forces they cannot comprehend. Hope is a four-letter word.

Welcome to Citrus County, Florida. Shelby is a smarter-than-average middle-school student, who at least knows there are better places than the one she lives in. After her mother died, Shelby's father brought Shelby and her little sister Kaley to what seems to be a place the Apocalypse forgot. Shelby's got an eye for Toby who's smart, but inclined to be deliberately evil. Both of them have Mr. Hibma for a class that consists of time-wasting presentations and random lectures. Of late, Toby has decided that he will be evil.

There are consequences to that decision.

'Citrus County' by John Brandon, is stripped to the bone. In prose so sparse it feels as if each word were carved from hard, dark wood, Brandon pulls the reader into world where even boredom has no direction. The difference between death and a dead end is difficult to detect. Yet there are lives to be lived here.

Brandon's prose may be spare and laconic, but it is not without poetry and pace. 'Citrus County' looks like a middle-school book, and may be just as easy to read but for the intense and adult nature of the narrative. With easy, short sentences and a keen eye for the absurd, Brandon turns a story of feckless teenagers and their under-inspired teacher something hypnotic and powerfully affecting. There's a loping rhythm to the language that helps immerse readers in these three characters and dark, disturbing, but satisfying story.

In any novel told in the third person, readers will find themselves at the mercy of the characters who experience that story. The three primary characters of 'Citrus County' are all equally compelling and unlike any you've met. Shelby is the closest to familiar, a precocious young girl who is too smart for her surroundings, and imbued with a combination of good will and good sense. She emails her aunt in Iceland, who has a tidy success as an online personality, does reasonably well in school and seems likely to escape Citrus County. Toby lives with his Uncle Neal, a disturbed loner who spends his time growing hemlock and inhaling the fumes, but Toby sees himself as destined for bigger things — evil. Both them take note of and are noticed by Mr. Hibma, a disaffected teacher who avoids his colleagues and even teaching itself. Instead he fills his classroom time with random lectures and requests that the students make presentations. Unmoored from the desire to be a good teacher, he finds himself contemplating being a bad person.

Brandon's carefully burnished prose spins these three characters quite swiftly into a very bad place. Toby makes a very bad decision, Shelby finds her family and her life torn apart, and Mr. Hibma contemplates a plan even more unpromising than Toby's. Brandon is extremely clever as he tells his tale. 'Citrus County' is in some ways a novel of omission, as Brandon avoids every cliché scene you might expect to find. In doing so, he can keep his laconic, low-key approach while ratcheting up the suspense. There are thrills to be found here, and true terror. They're effectively and believably run through the sensibilities of the two young protagonists. Decisions are made and cannot be unmade, and the consequences can be life-changing — or life-ending.

But 'Citrus County' is not simply dark, it's also very funny. Mr. Hibma may be one of the best teacher characters you'll ever have the pleasure of reading about. His doubts and insecurities, his half-decisions and raw antipathy for hall-monitors and ass-kissers are a wonderful foil to his own dark decisions. He's practically forced to do his job, and one of the joys of this novel is to see his reluctant success, even as he's planning his own undoing.

Brandon's novel travels to a lot of very dark places and lot of very funny places as well. It's remarkably entertaining even as it unfolds in a very bleak and unpleasant American landscape. For all the tension and suspense, readers get real, enjoyable characters swirling down into an abyss that would not bother to look back at those who stare into it. This abyss just waits to suck everyone down. In this regard, Brandon's plot shines, as Shelby, Toby and Mr. Hibma manage to find a very satisfyingly realistic resolution. While all our lives may be swirling down into an abyss, in 'Citrus County,' readers have the unique chance to enter a maelstrom that funnels down not to despair, but in the end, to life, rich, raw unexpected life.

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