Citrus County is a brilliantly conceived and executed novel about the smart, strange, and disaffected in rural America.
In less skilled hands, Toby would be just another teenage bad boy – distant, destructive, irresistible, a real-life Edward Cullen. Yet this teen bad boy is both perpetrator and victim. Abusive Uncle Neal, who balances on a razor thin edge of sanity, is raising Toby. How could he end up any other way? There’s no explanation available to Toby as to what happened to his parents, why he ended up with Uncle Neal. But Toby doesn’t dwell on what could have been in his life; instead he accepts what is. For Toby, that means understanding and embracing his basest impulses, his “badness”. “He was as weak as ever. Anything could make him weak – the wrong smell, the wrong tint in the sky, thinking about the dragging afternoons he’d endured in his lifetime and all the afternoons to come. He was addicted to petty hoodlumism.”
Orbiting around Toby is Shelby, the gifted, funny, pretty, new girl. She’s too smart to tolerate the vapid popular girls and too good at being a daughter to her widowed father and motherless sister to risk shaking the family foundation with petty rebellions. When Shelby rebels, it’s going to be with Toby. When she rebels, it’s with forethought and deliberation. Shelby will save Toby in a completely unexpected way and Toby will be unable to help himself from destroying her and her family in return.
While Toby and Shelby torture themselves and others with anger, lust, and uncertainty, their geography teacher, Mr. Hibma, plots the murder of a fellow teacher and creates plays for the girls’ basketball team that he’s been forced to coach. “Teaching had been the only job available to him, and for awhile it was amusing, another lark, but now he’d been doing it a year and half.” Mr. Hibma is, in many ways, more immature than the students he teaches, as he steals sodas from the teachers lounge and forces the girls basketball team to undergo makeovers. “In middle school, he reminded them, ugly girls are intimidated by pretty girls. Hell, it was this way with adult women. A team could gain advantage by keeping tan and having their nails done.” Like Toby, Mr. Hibma struggles with his “badness”, his most immature feelings butting up against the functioning adult he is becoming despite his best efforts.
There is a crime at the center of Citrus County. It is perpetrated and the horror of it is felt in everything following – kisses exchanged, library visits, emails written, breakfasts prepared and eaten, and greeting cards purchased. There is no black-and-white, Citrus County is hot, humid, and full of gray areas.
John Brandon has created genuinely complex teen characters, imbuing their contempt and recklessness with the seriousness that teens treat themselves and each other. Their voices and actions, even at their most shocking, ring true. Mr. Hibma is deliciously contemptible as the morally questionable and thoroughly pathetic boy-man in charge of teaching adolescents every day. The events that unfold in Citrus County will stick with you.
More about the book at McSweeney's.