By John Brandon
There is a moment in the middle of John Brandon’s fetching new novel, “Ivory Shoals,” that might be the best depiction of a grand theft horse gone wrong in all of literature. The earnest and plucky 12-year-old Gussie has survived deadly swamps and bounty hunters on his way to find his father, when he happens upon a wounded and wary Morgan. Gussie is a good kid. He intends to just borrow the horse until the next hamlet in this post-Civil War Florida landscape of insane heat and sundry dangers. But in four pages of gorgeous prose, Brandon delves into Gussie’s tactics, slowly building tension as the boy walks the animal down a trail and works up the courage to mount. For anyone who has attempted to climb onto a moving horse, the result will be disastrously familiar.
“The moment, both slow-dawning and sudden, of appreciating his foolishness” becomes in Brandon’s telling almost physical, a “heavy object of his own folly,” something he could “turn … over in his hands.” It is a winning metaphor, coming as it does in the midst of a terrible tumble, and is typical of a book chock-full of such moments of psychological acuity, physical action and natural beauty.
It takes a bit of time to parse what kind of book this is. At the outset, Gussie, mourning his late mother, makes off with cash from her pimp, who sends a bounty hunter after him. Gussie is headed to the town of Ivory Shoals to look for the father he has never met, and the reader is prepped for a harrowing cat-and-mouse. But after these inciting incidents, Gussie’s story turns downright picaresque. Stumbling from one misadventure to the next, he suffers all kinds of violence and deprivations, never seeming to be really in danger. He is always rescued “by members of the fair sex”; it’s as if the world has seen fit to supply the orphan with mothers precisely when he needs them.
While this saps much of the tension from Gussie’s journey, Brandon’s perspicacity on a host of secondary characters is truly brilliant. The aforementioned pimp and hunter are fully fleshed expressions of malevolence. The tertiary swamp-dwellers, veterans and country folk are rendered with considered depth. But it is Gussie’s destination, his father’s home, rife with many original and fraught relationships, that occasions the deeply moving conclusion to this beguiling book.
Brandon’s love of language has been evident since his first novel, “Arkansas,” but in terms of sheer prose, “Ivory Shoals” is a luxury of vocabulary, diction and old-timey usage. A mountain stands in the “afterground” and Gussie walks under a “char-dull” sky. A shop is “hung so busy” with wares. People wear “witched” expressions and possess “oddments” and aim to get “utterly wallpapered” on punch.
Interestingly, the dialogue often strains to comport with the lyricism of Brandon’s prose. It’s not hard to fathom that “botheration” and “fribbled” were part of 1860s American parlance. But everyone is so clever that most of their speech winds up sounding composed. The same jarring effect occurs in actual histories, like Philip Gibbs’s “Now It Can Be Told” or Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast. The “Deadwood” showrunner David Milch cut the purple prose of that opus with healthy doses of expletives and Ian McShane. But “Ivory Shoals” isn’t a western, it’s a Florida book, and Brandon’s characters are as grandiloquent as all get-out. You get used to it the way you get used to humidity.