A Journey Through Florida, Braving Deadly Swamps and Bounty Hunters


by John Brandon

In the middle of John Brandon’s new novel “Ivory Shoals,” there is a moment in literature that may be the best depiction of a great thief’s horse gone wrong. Determined and daring, 12-year-old Gussie manages to survive deadly swamps and bounty hunters when she stumbles upon an injured and cautious Morgan on her way to find her father. Gussie is a good boy. He just intends borrowing Horse to the next village in this post-Civil War Florida landscape filled with insane heat and various dangers. But in four pages of gorgeous prose, Brandon examines Gussie’s tactics, slowly building up tension as the boy pet walks down a path and mustering up the courage to ride. For anyone attempting to climb a moving horse, the result will be disastrously familiar.

“Both slow and sudden, the moment of appreciation for his stupidity” becomes almost physical, he becomes “a heavy object of his own stupidity,” something he can “handle… in his hands,” Brandon explains. It’s a winning metaphor that sounds like it’s in the middle of a terrible slump, and this kind of psychological sharpness is typical for a book filled with moments of physical action and natural beauty.

It takes some time to parse what kind of book this is. Initially, Gussie, grieving the death of her mother, receives cash from her pimp, who sends a bounty hunter after her. Gussie heads to the town of Ivory Shoals in search of her father she never knew, and the reader prepares for a sad cat-and-mouse. But after these provocative events, Gussie’s story takes a downright picaresque turn. Stumbling from one misfortune to the next, he suffers all kinds of violence and deprivation, never seeming to be truly in danger. It is always saved by “fair sex members”; As if the world saw fit to provide mothers for the orphan just when he needed it.

While this greatly reduces the tension in Gussie’s journey, Brandon’s grip on a number of secondary characters is truly fantastic. The pimp and predator mentioned are purely fleshy expressions of malevolence. Tertiary swamp dwellers, veterans, and country folk are rendered with thoughtful depth. But Gussie’s destination, her father’s home, filled with so many original and full-blown relationships, makes for a deeply touching ending to this captivating book.

Brandon’s love of language has been evident since his first novel, “Arkansas,” but in prose terms, “Ivory Coast” is a luxury of vocabulary, diction, and old-time use. A mountain stands “in the background” and Gussie walks under a “char-dull” sky. A shop is “too busy” with goods. People wear “witch” emoticons and carry “quirks” and aim to go “totally wallpaper” in the punch.

Interestingly, the dialogue is often forced to conform to the lyricism of Brandon’s prose. It is not difficult to understand that “discomfort” and “distortion” were part of the American idiom of the 1860s. But everyone is so clever that much of their speech sounds like it was composed. The same jarring effect is seen in real dates, such as Philip Gibbs’ “Now It Can Be Told” or Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast. “Deadwood” showrunner David Milch cut the purple prose of this opus with healthy doses of curses and Ian McShane. But “Ivory Shoals” isn’t a western, it’s a Florida book, and Brandon’s characters are as gaudy as any escape. You get used to the humidity.


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