Here's a small and not-remotely-comprehensive list of weird things that happened in Florida last year: A woman was arrested for riding a manatee; a giant blue eyeball washed up on a beach; a mom and daughter started a tandem porn-star team; and a guy died after winning (or perhaps losing) a roach-eating contest in an attempt to win a pet python from a reptile store.
When that's a typical Floridian news cycle, who needs fantasy?
That's the trouble with Karen Russell's new story collection, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," her first book since the reputation-sealing novel "Swamplandia!," set in the roadside-attraction underworld of her estimable home state. She's strongest when skulking around the absurdity and accidental mythology of our New Weird America. She gets there in several stories here, but too much of this collection experiments with alternate universes that can't compete with a typical afternoon in Fort Lauderdale for resonant bizarreness.
There are two kinds of pieces in "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." The first and better setting for her is a more realistic one: when her fictional world looks pretty much like the one we live in but something uncanny is creeping out the place.
That's how the title story works, in which an elderly couple waits out retirement in Italy (yes, they are also vampires, but that's kind of a blood-red herring here). The supernatural is dealt with quietly and largely in hindsight, while the real unsettling happens as the man faces down the possibility that his love is false.
"There is a loneliness that must be particular to monsters, I think, the feeling that each is the only child of a species. And now that loneliness is over," Russell writes. But he later offers, "I wonder to what extent a mortal's love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love coiling like a green stem out of that blankness in a way I'll never quite understand."
That's a true and unnerving revelation, whether you're undead or not. She hits that sense of slippery terror again in "The New Veterans," which plays like a higher-stakes "Twilight Zone" for our mind-scarred post-9/11 military. In the story, a soldier's graphically detailed back tattoo of an IED attack channels horrifying visions to his masseuse: "Beverly learns that one prejudice that has been ordering her existence is that there is an order: that time exists, that its movements are regular and ineluctable. … Her 'flashbacks,' such as they were, do not conform to the timeline of Derek's first story anymore. They feel closer to dreams." It's the best story in the collection because it feels closest to life as it's lived, bad dreams and all.
Russell's less successful mode is straight fantasy, in which the story lives and dies on the potential of its conceit: a company of Japanese slave girls in the Meiji era turned into silkworms in "Reeling for the Empire," or "The Barn at the End of Our Term," about a farm full of horses that are also the reincarnations of former presidents.
Russell obviously grew up with a lot of sci-fi and horror flicks and can capably render impossible worlds like those. But the cuteness and cleverness of the constructions overwhelm these stories' effect. At worst, as in the riffy but throwaway piece "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating," one wonders if there was any pressure to publish a quick follow-up after the success of "Swamplandia!"
The centerpiece tales in "Vampires" make a strong case for Russell as a writer at the forefront of young American fiction and evoke the strangeness and disconnection of life in the states. But just ask the real-life middle-aged couple at the Spring Hill swingers' orgy who got jealous and started a brawl, leading to their mutual naked arrests: At least in Florida, you don't need to make much of this stuff up.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp., $24.95