Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2011) Knopf (2011) 316 pp
I’m a Karen Russell fan. I love the way she dips into the fantastic to examine the quotidian. When I look back at The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” project (now seven months in the past), her short story, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” comes out as my favorite of the bunch. There are so many shades in that wonderful story that takes us on a slow ride on a dredger in Florida’s swamplands during the Great Depression. I was very excited, then, when I found out that “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” was an excerpt from her new novel Swamplandia!. I had no ideat how she could turn it into a novel, particularly since the novel took place much later than the Great Depression and featured a family of gator wrestlers.
The Bigtree family are the proprietors of and performers at Swamplandia!, a swampland theme park that is a forty minute ferry ride from the Florida mainland. Sawtooth Bigtree is the proud grandpa, though when the book begins he’s already on the mainland in an institution. He cannot remember anyone. The Chief is the father and the idealistic founder of the park. Hilola Bigtree is his wife; she’s the star of the show. They have three children: a son, Kiwi (17), and two daughters, Osceola (16) and Ava (13).
Ava is the principal narrator. When the book begins, she tells us about her mother’s grand act. In the moonlight, Hilola would climb above the gator pool, jump in, and swim across. It terrified the audience and was the park’s biggest draw. This is, though, the beginning of the end:
The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it. When I was a kid I couldn’t see any of these ridges. It was only after Swamplandia!’s fall that time folded into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. If you’re short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell.
Hilola thought she might be pregnant, but when she went to the doctor they discovered cancer instead. After she died, it doesn’t take long before the park dies, too. Fewer and fewer tourists arrive, and the family is in quite a bit of trouble; not only are they uneducated, but they have nothing in common with the mainlanders. Ava is aware of the park’s financial problems, as is Kiwi. But where he wants to pack up and go to the mainland to get a job and some schooling, she wants to hone her gator wrestling skills and find a way to make the park profitable, a task made even more difficult since The World of Darkness, another theme park, opened on the mainland.
I feel the need to skip quite a bit of back-story here because, honestly, I didn’t find its presentation (almost half of the book) particularly relevant or poignant. I want to get to “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” which just precedes each child’s personal journey to Hell. Kiwi runs away and eventually ends up working at The World of Darkness. The Chief heads to the mainland, too, for a business trip, he tells his two young daughters. So with everyone gone and no one else arriving, Ava and Osceola (Ossie, they call her) are alone. Finally, a wrecked dredger drifts to Swamplandia!
Since their mom died, Ossie has been drawing into herself. She picks up a book on spiritism and, she says, begins dating ghosts. The walls of Ossie’s room contain the obituaries of the boys she’s dating. The family is cynical (“It could be worse: at least she’s not dating some mainland jackass with a motorcycle, huh?”), but they don’t worry too much about her. It is as if she is just going through a phase. When the dredger arrives, she and Ava go on board and see that it has the stench of death, but not a fresh stench. It is probably a relic of the dredge and fill campaign, which dates it back to the 1930s. That night, Ava falls in love with the dredgeman Louis Thanksgiving, a seventeen-year-old boy who died before his life had even begun.
Now, if you’re against the supernatural, that is no reason not to go on reading here. There’s a good reason for it, and the most haunting aspect of this book is that it isn’t necessarily anything supernatural. In fact, it’s not just haunting. Creeping about in this damaged girl’s mind is terrifying.
So now Ossie is in love with an old ghost with a terrible past. Infatuated (and drifting away), Ossie tells Ava the dredgeman’s story, or, “The Dredgeman’s Revelation.” Now, I had been less than moved with the first part of the book. Despite the lush descriptions, I found that it lacked texture and a sense of dimensional space I enjoy in Russell’s work. I didn’t feel the emotions, and I wasn’t believing in the characters. But “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” changes all that. Finally we feel the swampland. We feel time passing in the heat and sweat. Instead of over-describing, Russell holds back and gives us only a couple of elliptic paragraphs about the dredgeman’s childhood. Those paragraphs, as little as they say, are enough to make us believe it when we find out that the dredgeman is ebullient on the dredger. Where his coworkers are miserable and depressed, he can’t believe his luck and signs on for more work, feeling a bit sad when his “friends” escape while they can. For Louis, life is just beginning, until it is plucked up out of the sky on a clear day.
Swamplandia! becomes very dark at this point. Ossie decides to run off and elope with the dredgeman in the Underworld. Ava needs to stop her, but she has no idea how to get to the Underworld. Then arrives the Bird Man, a tall fellow who frequently comes to the island to help take care of the bird problems. He is friendly and Ava quickly trusts him with Ossie’s story and with the problem. Grave and with some hesitation, the Bird Man asks Ava if she’d like to go to the Underworld; he knows the way, though it is not easy.
Thus begins another strong passage in the book: Ava’s trip to the Underworld with the Bird Man. Unlike the first half of the novel, but rather like “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” this part is strengthened by what is left unspoken — perhaps even unthought.
Ava’s story has life and a journey worth seeing from beginning to end, and we sense the emotion in the chapter titles: “Ava Goes to the Underworld,” “Ava’s Eclipse,” “The Silently Screaming World.” As it happens in “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” death can come from the sky and pluck someone up before their life has even begun.
Sadly, the book is weaker because it does not stay focused on Ava. After Kiwi leaves Swamplandia!, the chapters alternate between Ava’s account and his own parallel story, told by some third-person narrator, about his travails on the mainland at The Heart of Darkness. For me, much like the book’s back-story presented in the first half of the book, Kiwi’s life on the mainland is not particularly interesting and lacks Russell’s typical vim and sensitivity to what should not be said. Consequently, I don’t think Russell succeeds at making Kiwi important enough to occupy that much space. In trying to show that Kiwi’s development is more stilted than Ava’s, I again find it helpful to refer to the chapter titles: “Kiwi Climbs the Ladder,” “Kiwi Goes to Night School,” “Kiwi Bigtree, World Hero,” “Kiwi Rolls the Dice,” “Kiwi Takes to the Skies.” I did like Kiwi enough as a side character, but despite the many chapters dedicated to him, Kiwi doesn’t come off as anything more than the side character we came to know in the first half of the book.
Swamplandia!‘s strengths are impressive. It is a book worth reading. But with the filler back-story and Kiwi chapters, the book felt to me like a very good novella plumped up into a decent but disappointing novel.