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