Sunday, September 2, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the three novels nominated for the Pulitzer Prize that the full Pulitzer committee did not award this year. (The others were The Pale King by David Foster Wallace and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.)

Russell, according to the flap copy, is a native of Miami, was chosen as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, and is currently writer-in-residence at Bard College. Her first book was St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. 

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family, alligator wrestlers who live on their own island in a Florida swamp that sounds very much like the Everglades. Years earlier, Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree had founded an alligator-themed theme park on the island and mainlanders came over on the ferry for a show, a tour of the Bigtree Family Museum, a souvenir from the Bigtree Gift Shop, and a snack in the Swamp Cafe. Grandpa's son, Sam, had married Hilola who had three children, Kiwi (the 17-year-old son), Osceola (the 16-year-old daughter), and Ava (13). When Hilola, star of the show, dies of cancer, both the park and the family start to fall apart. Grandpa Bigtree is in what sounds like Florida's worse rest home. Father Bigtree (the Chief) takes off for parts unknown on the mainland. Kiwi, sensitive to Swamplandia's fraught financial condition, goes to the mainland to earn enough to save the park leaving the two girls. Osceola falls in love with a young dredgeman who died in the 1930s and elopes with him. Ava goes after her sister with the help of a swamp character, the Bird Man. Complications ensue.

At the beginning of the novel, Ava tells the story in her own voice, i.e., first person. At Chapter 6 (p. 61), the point of view shifts to the limited third person as we begin to follow Kiwi and his adventures on the mainland where he finds a job with The World of Darkness, a competing theme park. From that point on the POV shifts back and forth. At first I found the shift jarring, but I think it works. I'm not sure I always believed that Ava, as a home-schooled 13-year-old, would have the sophistication (about some things) and language she has. But I was willing to suspend my disbelief.

Because there's no question that Russell's language is wonderful. Examples from a random walk through the pages: "Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles of the grid of mainland lights—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother's body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees."

"I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers."

"The teacher was a tall, unsmiling woman in high-waisted pants with a nickle-bright Afro. Her body had a switch-blade beauty that Kiwi was not encouraged to continue appreciating by her face."

There's so much good, it's hard to stop, so here's just one more example: "Curtains of Spanish moss caught at my hair like fishermen's nets. The night had developed a suffocating wetness—breathing felt like drowning in a liquid you couldn't climb out of."

Swamplandia! is almost as remarkable a performance as Hilola Bightree's regular dive into a pool filled with alligators.

1 comment:

  1. I had already decided not to read this book, but I was curious to see what your opinion was. Having heard about what happens during the tense parts of the book, I really just have no desire to put myself through that.