Kristen Arnett’s promising debut dwells in a Sunshine state of mind
Florida — tropical fantasia, Republican stronghold, environmental cautionary tale — has, in the past decade, inspired a glut of first-rate American fiction.
It began in 2010, when McSweeney’s published James Hannaham’s unusual and unusually moving “God Says No,” a novel about a 19-year-old, Disney-obsessed black fundamentalist’s attempts to reconcile his queerness with his Christian upbringing. The following year, Karen Russell and John Brandon put forth extraordinary debuts (“Swamplandia!” and “Citrus County,” respectively) about dangerous wildlife and near-feral children. Last year, Lauren Groff’s Florida-themed story collection, “Florida,” connected the Sunshine State’s natural extremes with the startling vagaries of early middle age.
And Kristen Arnett closes out this decade-long renaissance with “Mostly Dead Things,” a worthy addition to the new Florida canon: a highly engrossing, extremely promising, sad, and very funny first novel about sex and death.
Arnett’s debut combines the hallmarks of its recent predecessors with notes of John D. MacDonald, a foundational Florida thriller writer of a more remote past. MacDonald protagonist Travis McGee, last seen in 1985, lived on a houseboat while recovering items for shifty people unable to turn to the police. Artful, cynical, and above all lonely, McGee “cut a wide swath through a wall of female flesh” while mourning the changing Florida landscape with a sense of bewilderment.
When the reader meets Jessa-Lynn Morton, they encounter a gruff, hard-bitten Central Florida taxidermist deep in mourning after her beloved father’s suicide and the flight of her best friend and true love, Brynn, who also happens to be her brother’s wife.
Jessa is equal parts lonely, horny, and depressed. By day, she flays and stuffs barely enough animals to keep the family business afloat while drinking enough beer to quiet her unquiet mind. At night, she finishes the job, drinking herself into oblivion while distracting herself further with her “usual type...a messy woman, the kind of person who’d go out with [her] on a date and inevitably leave the bar with someone else.” Jessa lives alone in a fleabag apartment, but she often sleeps in the taxidermy shop. She showers intermittently and catches whiffs of herself often.
Her family is equally adrift: brother Milo, a lost soul who disappears frequently; his addict elder son just out of rehab; his motherless teenage daughter stuck managing the household. Meanwhile, Jessa’s mother has shaved her head and taken to arranging the mounts in the display window into pornographic poses.
In short, Jessa’s home has stopped feeling like home. Vintage furniture stores, galleries, and craft beer bars have taken over a once-shabby downtown, old Florida “power washed into submission.” “It was what Central Floridians did: pave over everything so they could forget what had been there before,” Jessa muses.
What could bring hope to such hopelessness? A mysterious dame, of course.
Enter Lucinda, who walks into the shop wearing “patent leather pumps that make her legs look great and a professional business skirt with a pleat cut in the back...lean, angular and handsome.” A gallery owner, she has gotten wind of Jessa’s mother’s porny tableaux and wishes to display them. And that butch woman who hangs around the gallery might be Lucinda’s wife.
Extremely reluctant to conceive of her mother as a sexual being, horrified by the possibility of her father’s life’s work becoming smut, and cowed by the notion that sex could be anything but dead serious or a shameful expression of need, Jessa is completely against the possibility of an exhibition.
Luckily for readers, Arnett is not reluctant to describe these pieces in great detail. In her depictions of mangled dead animals in elaborate bondage scenes, Arnett’s considerable gifts as a comic writer glow. (If Arnett were to write a novel in the style of Leanne Shapton’s “Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry,” told through a series of fake artwork labels, I’d be first in line to buy it.)
Lucinda the gallerist’s entree into the novel sets the plot and its protagonist into motion. Will Jessa manage to stop the art exhibition? Will she ever get over her great love?
Like Jessa, the novel’s forward motion is manically driven, somewhat woozy, and heavily burdened by the past. Super erotic and bittersweet vignettes about Jessa’s love affair with Brynn flood the narrative, as do memories of Jessa’s father, a weird and complicated man.
The fecundity and rot of the Florida setting permeate throughout. Gators lurk. Peacocks glisten. Putrescent corpses disintegrate. Infinite bugs deliver infinite bites. Neither Jessa nor the reader is ever entirely free of the sticky heat.
By Kristen Arnett
Tin House, TK pp. $24.95
Eugenia Williamson is a Chicago writer and editor.