Floridian John Brandon arrived in 2009 with his debut novel Arkansas which immediately created a literary voice deserving attention. Arkansas told the interweaving stories of a pair of small time criminals, their divergent, but mutually difficult, backstories, and their crime boss who remains unknown to them both. Brandon's ability to take the reader inside each person's head, allowing motivations to be known and understood (no matter how bizarre), created a fictional world where humor and violence could co-exist perfectly.
Brandon has followed his strong debut with Citrus County, newly out in paperback, which is set in an actual rural county in Florida that lies north of the Tampa area. Citrus County continues Brandon's writing voice that made Arkansas special where multiple characters help to tell the overall story, each from his own angle. Citrus County could be seen as a crime story like Arkansas, but at the heart it is a teenage love story, a twisted one perhaps, but a love story just the same.
The two teenagers in question are Toby and Shelby. Toby is a boy who would be considered troubled by most. He lives with his working class uncle who provides him little supervision or attention. Shelby's family, led by her loving father and younger sister, has had to recently face the tragedy of losing her mom. This places Shelby in the difficult position of being the woman of the house while also facing the normal hormonally affected dreams of the average teenage girl.
From the beginning, young and adventurous Shelby sets her sights on the brooding Toby. While she's appears to others as a nice girl and a good student, Shelby relates to the loner in Toby. Like him, she doesn't feel connected to her classmates and is instead drawn to Toby. Unfortunately, her initial flirtatious attention towards a confused Toby leads him to a tragic decision within the first thirty pages of the book. This decision becomes the hidden background story of the growing emotional connection between the two.
Never one to leave his readers lacking in interesting character studies, Brandon also reveals the mind Mr. Hibma, Toby and Shelby's semi-disturbed geography teacher who ended up at their school by throwing a dart on a map. As a younger teacher, only decade and a half older than his pre-driving age students, Mr. Hibma's hidden sense of disconnect, disatisfaction, and delusion serves as an example of where a unpurposed life might strangely and scarily end up. Brandon's introduction of Mr. Hibma displays the author's power to immediately create a defined, three-dimensional character in only a few short sentences:
Mr. Hibma had given one of the kiss-asses a stopwatch and deemed her the umpire. Some days Mr. Hibma lectured. Some he allowed his classes to play trivia games. These were the two was he could stomach teaching: losing himself in a lecture or daydreaming while the kids were absorbed in guessing.
Brandon already wrote from a multi-generational perspective in Arkansas as he revealed the sordid histories of that book's characters so his choice to do so again makes sense. However, Citrus County shows another side of Brandon's gift as he delicately captures the often doomed essence of teenage love - young people wanting something from the opposite sex without the maturity of fully understanding what they truly need.
With only two published novels, John Brandon's arrival as a writer must be noted. His unique writing voice and ability to craft fully realized characters, often those of the borderline or criminal persuasion, make his books praise-worthy.
- Jim Markel