In a recent interview with his publisher, McSweeney's, John Brandon explained that writer Tom Franklin once told him on the subject of creating convincing historical fiction, "If you don't know what was involved in going to the bathroom, you're not ready to write scenes in that time period." The earthy vividness with which he depicts the American South in the mid-1860s in his latest novel, "Ivory Shoals," reveals that Brandon was ready.
From the "shallow pan of poisoned sugar water, a means against flies" in the bordello known as Rye's to the stomach-turning rumors that "all the highbred hounds of Georgia had been stewed with onions and eaten merrily on crackers by the Yankee soldiers," Brandon's fallen-Confederacy setting comes authoritatively alive.
This coming-of-age story continues his work in the vein of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy and Barry Hannah, tracking outsiders from society's fringes on odd and often gruesomely humorous quests through richly realized and treacherous landscapes. After the death of his prostitute mother, Lavinia, in 1865, Gussie Dwyer, Brandon's 12-year-old protagonist, sets out across the wreckage of post-Civil War Florida on a mission to find his dad, Madden Joseph Searle, an inventor unaware that this son even exists.
On the way, he keeps his mother's teaching — that he "be sparing of those deemed vile and leery of angels" — in mind. Chased by a vicious bounty hunter named August for absconding with "one whole evenin's revenue" from his mother's former place of employment, Gussie encounters plenty of reprehensible and seraphic minor characters.
Many of them speak in paragraphs of stylized dialogue full of vernacular flourishes, as when Gussie's contemptible and contemptuous rival Julius, Searle's legitimate son and heir, says to a Salt Lake City whore of his murderous intent regarding his unexpected half-brother, "This is the way of men and always has been. No fault lies in the urchin seeking his pudding, no fault in my repelling him. The victor has his spoils the loser his wounds."
An associate professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Brandon was born and raised in Florida, and his lushly described terrain bristles with beauty and menace. Anticipating the threats posed to him by the swamplands, Gussie pictures the "spiders heavy as kittens. Alligators, patient as the seasons and without scruple."
Brandon also indulges in descriptions of the era's food with gusto befitting his half-orphan hero, packing the pages with such lists as "a spotted yellow apple, a pair of seedcakes, and a handful of rock candy flavored weakly of lemon."
Brandon is the author of four previous books with McSweeney's — "Arkansas" (2008), "Citrus County" (2010), "A Million Heavens" (2012) and "Further Joy" (2014). His debut, a grimly comic and violent tale of drug running in the American South, was adapted last year into a movie starring Vivica A. Fox, Liam Hemsworth and Vince Vaughn.
Cinematic and featuring a plot full of old-timey moral clarity where virtue and villainy delineate themselves sharply, "Ivory Shoals" is a gripping yarn that unfolds a tapestry of "Humanity wicked as one could conceive, or as worthy."
Kathleen Rooney is the author of "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" and, most recently, "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey."
By: John Brandon.
Publisher: McSweeney's, 250 pages, $26.
Event: In conversation with Will McGrath, 7 p.m. June 15, Magers & Quinn. Register: bit.ly/3fokqj5.