"The Dredgeman's Revelation"
by Karen Russell
Originally published in the July 26, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Karen Russell is one of the youngest writers in the “20 Under 40” crowd. She was 25 when her first collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published. I’m reading it now, actually, and I’m an admirer. Last year she was noted by the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” along with C.E. Morgan. So, I was anxious to see her contribution to The New Yorker‘s project.

“The Dredgeman’s Revelation” takes us back to the Florida swampland at the time of the Great Depression, which was the best thing that ever happened to the protagonist Louis Thanksgiving Auschenbliss. At seventeen, being on the dredger is the best thing that has ever happened to him. The other workers can’t understand how someone who works in such miserable conditions — hot, wet, full of insects — could wake up whistling each morning.

Louis has an interesting and sad history, though. He was born dead in the Foundling Hospital. When he miraculously started to breathe, changing his purple skin a bit pinker, the doctor almost thought about not giving aid. The baby’s mother had died during delivery, and who knows who she was.

One of the Children’s Aid nuns came in to retrieve the newborn orphan, and Louis lost his true past in a few squeaks of her nun shoes on the linoleum. Carrying him away, leaving that widening blank of a woman behind him, this wimpled stranger wound the clock of Louis’s life.

Louis ended up on a train carrying orphans to Iowa. He had the misfortune to be adopted by a cruel farmer who apparently felt like this was the easiest way to get a slave. Louis hated his childhood and hated his father, though Russell leaves it fittingly opaque:

Louis was zero when he arrived at the Auschenbliss farm, sixteen when he escaped it, and not even the nosiest guys on the dredge crew could get him to say one word about that time.

As a result of his escape, Louis found his way to Florida and to the dredger. It’s no wonder he doesn’t mind the conditions. Everything is so much better than it was. For the first time in his life he has friends, even if they really are a bunch of strangers. Things are so good that when the first job is finished, Louis stays to help dredge a larger patch of land for some ambitious developers. Everyone else leaves, thinking he’s crazy to stay on.

Louis felt that his hellish past exempted him from all regrets.

What comes about is a nightmarish vision of dredging and fire and buzzards, something Russell herself described as “Hitchcock meets the swamp.”

I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did. Knowing that I’d be in a swamp among dredgers made me a bit physically uncomfortable, as I just don’t like that setting. But Russell is a fine writer, with insights we’d think would come about much later in life and with writing that looks like it’s taken dozens of years to polish. This is not my favorite story of the year, but the images, Louis, the swamp, the buzzards — it won’t be leaving me anytime soon.

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By |2016-06-17T13:23:20+00:00July 19th, 2010|Categories: Karen Russell, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett July 19, 2010 at 11:11 am

    New fiction forum up!

  2. Thomas July 20, 2010 at 11:36 am

    A bit disappointed in this story. I’ve been looking forward to Karen Russell since I heard any mention of the New Yorker publishing its 20 Best Writers Under 40. It didn’t take a genius to know that Russell would no doubt be included.

    Her last story, “Haunting Olivia” (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/06/13/050613fi_fiction) is one of my favorite stories of all time, and one of the best New Yorker stories of the past decade. “Dredgeman” however fails where “Olivia” succeeded. “Dredgeman” seems to be just another example of a story that should be a novel, trying to accomplish too much in too little space. The entire first half is pretty much exposition, and what is with the random fire (I’m sure these types of things happened frequently on such boats, but in this story it seemed like nothing more than a plot device designed to get the story moving from part 1 to part 2.)

    Russell’s writing is superb as always, and her images–man she rocks!! This story, along with Meyer’s, Morgan’s, and Mengestu’s, is probably one of the best so far, but I really was hoping for more.

  3. Trevor Berrett July 22, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    I think I liked this story more than you did, Thomas. I wasn’t jarred by the event. Actually, I quite like it when a short story writer gives us time to get to know the characters and then throws something unexpected into their lives, something we didn’t expect either, something that lets us see how the character’s life will change — or, in this case . . .

  4. Tim July 29, 2010 at 10:06 am

    I also found this story disappointing. It has some great concepts, namely with Louis being born dead, and that his life before dredging was so terrible that he’s now reborn and everything is amazing in comparison. Areas where I had trouble were the pacing. Nothing happens, and when it does finally, it feels rushed. I will agree though, great images. I’ll have to check out that other story. Review of the Dredgeman’s Revelation on Digital Dunes [link broken].

  5. Ken August 2, 2010 at 5:34 am

    I think this is my favorite story so far of the 20 under 40 selections. Here I feel that form and content are most perfectly blended. Whereas Ferris and Shytengart are better at form and Packer and Mengitsu excel at content (just to name 4 stories that I liked and ignore ones I thought were dull like the Meyer and Scibona pieces), this is both a stylistic tour-de-force with outstanding imagery, poetic interiority and some amazing metaphoric (“similistic”? “employing similes”?)descriptions (“his eyes a colorless sizzle, like grease in a pan”) but also a great character study and the (pun intended) reclamation of an interesting slice of American history.

  6. Trevor Berrett August 2, 2010 at 10:35 am

    It is still sitting well with me. A real treat, I felt, Ken.

  7. Trevor Berrett January 13, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    I just reviewed my thoughts on the above story because I’m over half-way done with Russell’s new novel Swamplandia!. Over the six or so months since this story was published, it has grown in my mind, making it one of my favorites of the year. “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” is an excerpt from this book (it is the same almost word-for-word). And, so far, it is my favorite part of the new novel, whose first 100 pages (pre-Louis Thanksgiving) were interesting but, despite clever writing, somewhat devoid of the life and textual texture I found in this story. Here’s hoping the last half of the book is more like “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” and less like the lead up to that section in the novel.

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