Darren White's Reviews > Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
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's review
Apr 25, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: florida-books
Read in January, 2011

Karen Russell
315 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95

I have searched for writers, musicians and artists from Florida for the past year in an effort to uncover a native Florida culture. I am searching for the Florida that callous tourists, philandering golfers and deceitful politicians have concreted over.

My family heritage goes six generations back into that unforgiving country. We left Florida for Texas as I entered my teenage years. My memories fade.

What remain are impressions. The smell of saltwater and seaweed blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean across A1A. The squeal of a baby alligator nestled in the Lake Okeechobee brush at Port Mayaca. The blue land crabs with their claws defiantly held upward. The feeling that America was a place far, far away from there.

That low country tranquility permeates through Miami native Karen Russell's debut novel Swamplandia!, the story of the Bigtree family and their struggle to hold onto each other -- and their own identities -- in a rapidly modernizing Florida that is swiftly leaving them behind.

Russell made quite a splash in literary circles long before the release of Swamplandia!, and the anticipation for her first full-length novel has been high. Granta called her one of the "Best Young American Novelists," The New Yorker named her to its "20 Under 40" list and the back cover of Swamplandia! comes with effusive praise by Stephen King, Carl Hiaasen and Joseph O'Neill inked on it.

The basis for the book comes from Russell's short story, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," which was initially published in Francis Ford Coppola's high-concept magazine Zoetrope and later included in her short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

The story goes that the Bigtree family -- The Chief, his wife Hillola, Grandpa Sawtooth and their children Ava, Osceola and Kiwi -- run the island alligator theme park from which the novel takes its name. Despite their names, they aren't Seminoles of Miccosukees, but instead a family of Ohio transplants. It turns out ol' Grandpa Sawtooth didn't take getting scammed on a 6-foot-deep plot of Everglades "farm land" during the '30s lying down.

Unfortunately, though, the reader's visit with the Bigtrees begins at the beginning of the end. Hillola dies suddenly, Grandpa is sent to an assisted-living facility on the mainland and the children and The Chief are left to try to save the park.

You'll read the first 75 pages of Swamplandia! slowly if you love descriptive language. On that back cover, Joseph O'Neill says the book is a "wonderfully fertile novel by an unfairly talented writer," and he's absolutely right. Turns of phrase and lush, evocative passages spill off the page and into another world.

Somewhere directly below Hillola Bigtree, dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water.

They sushed and crushed against and cursed at one another; couples curled their pale legs together like eels, beer spilled and kids wept.

Like black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled.

Those quotes are on the first two pages.

The Bigtree children, never educated in mainland schools, don't take the changes well. Kiwi runs off to the imposing, larger competitor, called The World of Darkness. Osceola becomes fascinated with communicating with the dead. Ava -- our narrator -- is pitched somewhere in between the her brother's pragmatic reality and her sister's otherworldly fantasy.

The Chief leaves to shore up money on the mainland and Osceola and Ava are left alone on island. Osceola takes up with a ghost she calls "The Dredgeman," and disappears to the Underworld when he promises to marry her. Ava takes off to rescue her and, back on the mainland, Kiwi, struggles to fit in with the rough-and-tumble South Florida teenagers who work for minimum wage at the World and live for cheap Friday night thrills.

Native Floridians will get a kick out of this book -- with its insider references and history. While many of Russell's geographic points are fictional, others -- Jupiter, Fort Pierce -- are real Treasure Coast locations.

And it doesn't take a deeply analytical reading of Russell's allegorical text to recognize the reference points Russell touches with her made-up names. The imposing city of Loomis is Miami or Fort Lauderdale or Naples or whatever South Florida city you want it to be. The World of Darkness is a jab at Walt Disney World and even Swamplandia! calls to mind roadside attractions like Gatorland, the Snake-a-torium and the Miccosukees who wrestled alligators for tourists before realizing gambling was much more profitable and easier on the fingers and limbs.

Therein lies one of Russell's great strengths. She is able to capture the imaginative, enterprising side of Florida natives, who are often painted as slow-witted Southerners, ambivalent Yankee hosts or hostile swamp people. For years Floridians have made a killing off tourists for half of the year, only to be left in relative peace for the other half. Florida natives welcomed out-of-towners with open arms, reached for their wallets and politely waited for them to go home. In fact, the real trouble began when the out-of-towners started to stay, but that's another essay.

Unfortunately, though Russell has a master's touch for language and character, she gets bogged down in the mud of a slow-building plot. The novel boldly asks you to decide whether or not it is fantasy, but places too much emphasis on descriptions that should crackle, but rather feel humdrum. Ms. Russell is a lightning bolt of a writer, and perhaps in future novels she can learn to hold a little back for the sake of plot development. This near-crawl of a pace works to her favor when she describes the story of Osceola's dead lover Louis Thanksgiving, but wallows when Russell spends dozens of pages describing each foot of Ava's journey into the Underworld, and surprisingly few pages resolving the story of her characters. And if you're not willing to at least tip-toe around the corners of a 14-year-old girl's fanciful story, well, don't bother.

Let's not be too hard on her, though. This is a great book, and to my knowledge it's undoubtedly the best, most challenging work of fiction set in Florida by a Florida writer in more than five decades. And for a first novel it sits at the front of a small class. It's full of humanity, humor and longing. It's full of history, mastery and brilliance. Once all the hype of the year's biggest releases is stripped away by time, it's certainly going to stand as the year's most inventive book.

Carl Hiaasen dedicated his collection of columns Kick Ass to those who "care about Florida." There aren't many who do in proportion to the number of people who live there, retire, there, vacation there, dump phosphorus into the waters there, fleece the elderly there, ship drugs there, build golf courses there, pave over natural beauty there and eventually leave there. There are only a few who see Florida as something more than an economy and a state, who see it as an idea about freedom and solitude, beauty and hardship. It seems like there are less every year. There are only a few who won't sneer and spit on Florida once they've used her up. Swamplandia! reads like a love letter to these folks -- for the Floridians who pine for the days when the St. Lucie River was pristine, when the tarpon and snook were so plentiful they used to jump in the boat, when people came for miles to P.P. Cobb's General Store.

Florida is most often the setting for crime novels --for good reason -- or a place protagonists are trapped and disgusted. About once a decade, a writer comes along -- Patrick Smith with A Land Remembered, Michael Grunwald's excellent The Swamp -- and writes a book that understands the state for what it is instead of what it isn't. While it's by no means a perfect book, Swamplandia! is now part of that list.
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