Early in Laura Lee Smith’s second novel, The Ice House, her protagonist, Johnny, who owns Jacksonville, Florida’s historic ice plant, muses about his job’s importance: “Water turned to ice. Liquid turned to solid. Who but Christ could take one element and turn it into another?…We are miracle workers. Have you ever seen a frozen waterfall?...It’s a violation of everything we know: the space-time continuum, the basic laws of physics…it’s magic.”
Out of context, this quote sounds unnecessarily arrogant, as if to suggest that Johnny’s flaw—like all tragic heroes before him—will most certainly be his pride, and maybe it is. But Smith’s novel is no tragedy. Sure, tragedy occurs. Lots of it, in fact. What is interesting about the above quote is not just its religious or supernatural undertones, but that it is also a comment on the invisible infrastructure that populates the world: We make ice in trays or with machines, and we melt ice after too long, but rarely, in a society of lattes trapped in single-use plastic, do we consider from where ice came.
The Ice House represents a kind of origin story—not for ice, but for a family that makes it in a city tense with racial strife and rampant drug use. We follow them from struggle to skirmish, wondering if they will maintain their shape or dissolve into amorphous water. Just like ice, Johnny is cold, hardened by years of ice-making and caring for others, especially his son, Corran, a recovering heroin addict. And like all humans who escape tragedy, Johnny—known as “Ice” by fellow workers at the plant and his teenage neighbor Chemal—takes on a kind of mystical quality that defies law or reason, for the matters contained in his world are matters of the heart.
Like all good fiction writers, Smith is aware of the necessity of conflict and tension in her work. Her first novel, Heart of Palm, released by Grove Atlantic Press in 2013, explores not just family strife but also what happens when development meets the coastline of northeast Florida, a formerly well-kept secret. In The Ice House, which was also published by Grove Atlantic and came out in late 2017, Johnny’s ice factory is in jeopardy thanks to devastating OSHA fines from an accident that occurred onsite. Meanwhile, his wife Pauline—the real owner of the Bold City Ice Plant, for it was her father’s factory before he had dementia—has taken up jogging to fight the restlessness of middle age, the racism of her family’s past and the regret she carries over not having children of her own. As the couple prepares for their appeal hearing with one of the most visible law firms in town (we’re on your side) and a whole cast of ice plant characters with conflicts of their own, Johnny learns he has a possibly cancerous, and possibly fatal, brain tumor, which results in seizures that resemble a “frighteningly psychedelic experience” complete with a kaleidoscope of colors and liquid light. Johnny fears the tumor is “creeping down his spinal cord…a cancerous kudzu, reaching long tentacles around his vertebrae and into the trembling chambers of his heart.”
And since that’s not enough, Johnny also finds out that Corran, once “a sovereign little boy,” has become a single father back in Johnny’s native country of Scotland, thousands of miles away from Florida’s first coast. Every conflict set up by Smith early in the book has an equal pay-off, so much so that the tone of the novel is anxious yet humorous and airy; though it is lengthy at over 400 pages and its themes blue-collar yet literary, it reads like pop fiction. While some critics have called Smith’s ending too nice, or even Disney-like, it is refreshing to read a book in which characters exhibit resiliency as well as stubbornness and suffering. Just as waves crash at the shoreline, they are sucked inward for another go ‘round.
The old south setting of north Florida, my home state, is rendered almost like a character itself. As Johnny contemplates the fate of his adopted state, “algae blooms and sea-level rise and all that,” he is sure the “peninsula [will] be under water by the end of the century.” This slow-burning outcome, for Johnny, mirrors his own eventual demise, as he feels “the heat wrap around him like a wet towel.” Later in the novel, as tensions between characters and situations rise and Johnny seeks refuge on the beach, he remembers “in Florida, silence [is] a porous thing, damp and fragile, never quite solidified…Cicadas whirring, rustle of palmettos, tumble of afternoon thunderheads…in Scotland, out in the country, silence [is] dry, hardened, complete.” Characters become round, three-dimensional, not just by talking and moving about in scene; in The Ice House, characters become real through the places they occupy.
Readers who seek robust, wounded characters, lived-in settings and stories of pressure and redemption should look no further than The Ice House. No matter the season, dig your toes into the warm, sugary sand of its pages, grab your favorite beverage and don’t forget the ice.