Meet the author: John Brandon will sign copies of his new book at 7 p.m. on Fri., June 6, at Inkwood books, 216 S. Armenia Ave., Tampa. The book is available for $24 at inkwoodbooks.com. Call 813-253-2638.
There’s a catch in his voice just before John Brandon answers each of my questions. It’s as if he’s so far away there’s a time delay on the phone connection. Or maybe he’s just pausing to consider his answers, for nearly the exact same duration each time.That pause, that distance, that quiet discomfort and slight strangeness, mirror his fiction. Brandon grew up in New Port Richey, and it seems to have given him a taste for a particular setting that’s kind of barely-off.
“I’m looking for kind of a place that’s been left behind and now feels kind of in limbo. Something stalled or something wrong with it.”
In Further Joy
, Brandon’s first short story collection after three novels, the characters, too, seem just slightly stalled and wrong. They have fallen far from grace and are willing to compromise themselves to survive. They’re lonely, hooking up with friends’ teenage sons. They’re fixing bets. They’ve disappeared.
Mostly, these lives are darkly wondrous amid resolute mundanity. But the strangeness also manifests in a hefty dab of magical realism. There are ritual abductions and police psychics and a sextet of disembodied brains that move into a downtrodden man’s spare bedroom, then do nothing but crawl with ominous slowness.
All of this unfolds in named and unnamed Florida locales. Tall birds stalk through the swamps behind dead-end apartment buildings. Look, there’s a Publix, the name in this context suddenly regaining its echoes of an antiquated Americana. Brandon captures a Floridian edge far more disquieting than the sensationalistic punchlines we’re used to.
When it comes to what his hometown did for his writing, Brandon is as stark and unforgiving as his books: “It was a void, as far as what you would call culture.” Surrounded by sports and not much else, he got a shockingly late start for someone who has grown into one of the most praised young writers in the country. “I guess about 11th grade I started reading a lot. I wasn’t sure why ... there was a Waldenbooks in the mall. I would go in there not having any idea what to get. I’d just go in and get another one.”
He didn’t write a short story until he was a sophomore in college, at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and he describes it as a sudden awakening. “I kind of knew right then. I hadn’t cared about anything career-wise, not for a second. I felt myself taking it really seriously.”
He enrolled in an MFA program immediately after graduating, at Washington University in St. Louis. “People told me I should go do something else first. But I don’t even know that I had the imagination and the wherewithal to know what that would’ve been. I didn’t have any money. I would just have been working some horrible job on a casino boat.”
For the characters in Further Joy
, money and work are rarely out of mind. It seems like a book of for these times, but Brandon talks about money in more timeless terms. “In my life, it’s just a constant determinant of things. Of your attitude, and how hopeful you can be, and what dreams you can have. How much money do you have in the bank right now?”
With his subtle portrayals of anxiety, through characters haunted by failure, Brandon has made a strength out of all those limitations and obstacles. “I don’t know if it’s always good to be encouraged ... I don’t know what that would’ve been like, being from New York, where you know all the possibilities.”
After his MFA, Brandon saw a lot more of the world, spending five years wandering America, staying each place only three months at a time. Working temp labor wherever he landed and writing at night, he completed Arkansas, his first novel.
Then he waited on tenterhooks for a publisher. For three years, he wondered whether he’d made a huge mistake. “It kind of gets worse each year ... I was definitely nervous about the whole situation.”
Living mostly disconnected from the community of writers (and from the Internet), Brandon didn’t know much about McSweeney’s aside from their great journal. Then someone told him they published books. He sent his in, and they accepted it within months, setting off a trajectory that now finds him teaching in an MFA program himself, at Hamline University in Minnesota.
Worry about the future hasn’t entirely left him, though.
“Now I have kids. It’s almost worse now. I have more money, but the consequences become much greater if I say, lost my job or something.” You wouldn’t expect anything else from a writer whose characters live so intimately with the spectre of losing everything.