Carolinians know the perversity of a hurricane that threatens to push inland. It's an invasive move on the part of the storm, going beyond its normal boundaries of water and coast to pry under-penned trailers off their already shaky foundations, rip the roofs from factories and force school closings.
In Floodmarkers, the debut novel by Chapel Hill's Nic Brown, Hurricane Hugo is a welcome nuisance for folks in the fictional town of Lystra, N.C. They greet the storm forecasted to hit them head-on in typical small-town fashion—with a game of "bag-heads," some drinking and karaoke-ing, some Ouija boarding and frog gigging.
It's 11 p.m. on Sept. 21, 1989, and a Greg Fishel-esque weatherman charts Hurricane Hugo as the storm heads toward Raleigh (and Lystra), packing wind gusts of 110 mph. The electricity in Lystra flickers before it falters. Cliff, returning home for his cousin's wedding, arrives at Tanfastic, Lystra's tanning salon, where he finds the entire wedding party roasting naked in tanning beds. This oddball introduction to Lystra's townsfolk becomes the hallmark of Floodmarkers as the quirky gets quirkier in an arrangement of 12 short stories divvied up into four sections: Before Sunrise, Morning, Midday and Night, each pulsing us through the veins of the storm while revealing Lystra's most vibrant personalities.
Brown blends comic relief with punchy prose to create a mixed-up little town that reeks of claustrophobic loneliness and blue-collar frustrations. There's Bryce, who reluctantly takes a job on the nightshift at Libertee Meats tying off the ends of hot dog casings as he dreams of working at the local dinner theater—although he has never acted. He quits the job after Moffett, the 30-something black guy who has the prestigious gig of operating the Butcher Boy 8000 mixing machine, accuses Bryce of "trying to start some shit." The accusation is as vague and random as it sounds, and Moffett seems threatened by Bryce's two-year community college stint. The confrontation occurs just before Hugo knocks out power at Libertee Meats, and Bryce escapes Moffett's wrath by walking out of his job into the unnatural darkness.
What Brown accomplishes with this collection is a melding together of stories that resemble the residents of Lystra: connected and disjointed at the same time. There are characters like Casper, the semihomeless, sickly white pitbull who roams through a few of the stories, first appearing in Van Lipsitz's backyard in the chapter titled"steak," then appearing at random in "trampoline" after escaping Manny's lackluster grasp, and again in "thawing" as Cliff tries to woo Birdie by giving her stuffed (and frozen) dog a proper burial. Casper acts as a thread reminding us of Lystra's rural-ness, reinforcing the way loose bonds are strengthened amid life's inevitable storms.
Brown's strong point is his wrangling with the complexities of the human condition, replacing the myth of small-town plainness with dense idiosyncrasies. In "friend of the sick," Fletcher is a teenage cancer patient left in the care of her brother, Mike, and her best friend, Grier, while her parents are away boarding up their beach home. What ensues is a reckoning with the finiteness of friendship as a hazy and weak Fletcher walks in on her brother and her best friend making love.
And things just get plain weird in "gypsy," when a French robber invades Cotton's house after he has fallen down a flight of basement stairs. As the paralyzed Cotton looks on, the robber's shadow appears in the darkness of the basement door. The robber's dialogue is neither spoken in French nor translated to English. It's simply relayed as "[French! French! French!]"
The tides that course through the stories in Floodmarkers keep rising. Each narrative strides confidently into the next, with all the countrified cast members in tow. Although Lystra avoids a direct hit by the storm, Brown's effortless swirl of cynicism, wit and empathy is as targeted and tightly wound as the winds compacting Hugo's eye.