John Brandon, author of the acclaimed novels Arkansas, Citrus County, and A Million Heavens, returns with his latest work of fiction, the rambunctious, on-the-road bildungsroman, Ivory Shoals.
In the post-Civil War set Ivory Shoals, Brandon tells the story of twelve-year-old Gussie Dwyer, who is heartbroken and alone after his beloved mother’s death. Gussie decides that it’s time he starts “looking to unbastard” himself and sets off on a journey that takes him throughout the state of Florida as he searches for his father, Madden Joseph Searle, who doesn’t even know of his son’s existence.
As Gussie makes his way to the titular location in which his father resides, he encounters plenty of scoundrels and rascals who try to stop him. There is talk of thieving, “Yankee-hatin,” and cat drownings. There’s a tracker named August, who Gussie knows has a “genius […] for cold-eyed violence.” There’s Julius, Gussie’s own half-brother, who seems set to protect his claim, no matter the cost, within the Dwyer family.
While it’s easy to see the meanness in these pages, there’s just as much kindness. Gussie himself carries a “bit of the goody-two-shoes about him” as one character observes. He frets about having to hunt his own food. Ultimately, the boy just wants to respect his mother and live the way she taught him, which is more “shoulds and shouldn’ts” than he can count. There’s also a strong supporting cast of kind, well-meaning characters — particularly women — who go out of their way to assist Gussie along his way and who try to see to his safety.
It’ll be nearly impossible for readers to experience Ivory Shoals and not make note of the rich, rollicking language Brandon uses to tell Gussie’s story. In describing the world surrounding the venturing boy (and those along his quest), Brandon puts it like this: “The sky above was the color of lime juice in a glass. Raccoons clambered up trees when August approached and peered down on him with their primed rascal eyes. Oil-scaled snakes shied off into the greenery. He rode the fringe of a compound of four or five raw-lumber cabins, snaggletoothed children spying him from the dormers. Pines thin as ramrods. Dense clots of palm from which the tocks of woodpeckers sounded.” Later, in another vivid moment, Brandon writes, “He tromped on through the field, disturbing dozens of drunken orange butterflies into the air, the briers clawing his trousers like brazen street cats.” Brandon knows this world, and he captures it with a beautiful, fully-realized prose.
Ivory Shoals will undoubtedly draw comparisons to some of Mark Twain’s writing. The language is one reason, for sure, but there’s also a sly humor that creeps into the pages here that adds depth to Gussie’s developing story. It’s hard not to softly chuckle when Gussie equates turtle stew to being in heaven or when there’s mentionings of folks not knowing “a boot heel from a Georgia peach.” Ivory Shoals wouldn’t work quite as well as it does if it didn’t have these light, humorous touches.
Throughout, the novel belongs to Gussie. If it weren’t for his growth, the story would falter. Instead, though, as Brandon constructs the narrative’s progress, we, too, see Gussie grow. There’s a particularly impactful moment when our protagonist sees the grandness of life and how it can’t really be contained: “He felt a strange lack of interest just then in the fictional fates of fictional young men. What happened on the trains had somehow withered the part of him that wished to be buoyed by the overcoming of made-up perils, by the vanquishing of imaginary scoundrels. He didn’t even want the Bible and its quaint miracles. Didn’t want any versions of life that had been crafted to fit inside a book’s bindings.”
Gussie might begin as a lost, desperate child, but by the end, he’s well on his way to adulthood — to embracing the great, big world that’s outside, just waiting to be explored and conquered.
By John Brandon
Published June 29, 2021