Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I patted myself on the back when I finally reached the end of Peter Matthiessen's voluminous Shadow Country.  I felt like I'd been slogging through the Everglades by foot for the 40+ hours required to listen to the book in audio format, and I was just starting to flush Florida's Ten Thousand Islands from my memory, practically wringing the swamp water out of my mind.

Then I spotted a book in Kinokuniya with an eye-catching cover.  Lo and behold, Karen Russell's Swamplandia! was a return ticket, non-stop, straight back to the Ten Thousand Islands.

Apart from the setting, these two novels seemed to have nothing in common, so I once again waded in with the alligators.  By the end of Swamplandia!, however, I've begun to think that you may be able to take the novel out of the swamps, but you can't take the swamps out of the novel.  Or something like that. Basically, the Everglades comes with its own trademark gloom and decay, and no amount of literary whimsy can keep readers from sinking into the muck to a certain extent.

Swamplandia! is a moribund theme park on one of the Ten Thousand Islands; the book's narrator is 13 year-old Ava Bigtree, aspiring alligator wrestler.  Ava's late mother, Hilola Bigtree, perished of cancer, and the absence of her signature show, in which she dives into a pool of alligators and swims coolly amongst them, has kicked off the decline and fall of the tourist visits to the park.  Her husband maintains a perverse optimism, banking on his newly concocted theory of 'Carnival Darwinism' to keep them in business.  Eldest son Kiwi despairs and flees to the mainland; middle daughter Osceola commences a love affair with the ghost of a dredgeman from the 1930s who died whilst trying to drain the Everglades, and Ava tries to keep herself, her family, the park, and her mother's memory alive in whatever ways she can.

While Matthiessen stuck to cold, hard realism in his novel, Russell's free-range imagination floats above the landscape like an airboat.  Eccentricity rules.  Ava describes Swamplandia! in its heyday:
Live Chicken Thursday was a Bigtree tradition dating back to 1942. The ritual was Grandpa Sawtooth's brainchild. I think my family traumatized generations of children and old women. And we girls must have inherited our forebears' immunity to gore, because Ossie and I could eat PB&J sandwiches during a death roll, no problemo.  
After the show, Ava's father, "The Chief", invites guests to visit the Swamplandia! museum:
The entryway to the palmetto-thatched museum burned green in daylight: WELCOME TO THE "LOUVRE" OF THE SWAMP ISLANDS! Sometimes you'd find a disoriented tourist in there, sucking a Fine Lime through a straw and looking mournfully for a bathroom.

But the flow of tourists dribbles to nothing, and Kiwi, fed up with auto-didactic education and Swamplandia!'s imminent doom, leaves for Loomis to earn some money and attend a public school, taping a farewell note to the fridge:
Kiwi had labeled the note for us: the VALEDICTORY NOTE -- like he really believed we might otherwise mistake it for a dollar bill or a horoscope. The VALEDICTORY NOTE informed us in Kiwi's pretty lousy handwriting of his "insuperable horror at the mismanagement of Swamplandia! and the poverty of our island education."  It explained: "I am relocating to Loomis County to raise funds to preclude what will otherwise result in a fiscal cataclysm for our family and certain penury and insolvency."  
Kiwi, upon arrival in Loomis County, takes a job as a janitor at Swamplandia!'s arch-nemesis, the World of Darkness, a theme-park version of Hell.  Not surprisingly, he fails to blend in with the mainlanders.  His minimum wage-earning co-workers don't share his aspirations to attend Harvard nor appreciate his tendency to jot down sociological observations in a pocket notebook; they take to calling him Margaret Mead.

Meanwhile, Osceola follows her ghostly lover, Louis Thanksgiving, to "the gates of the underworld", where she intends to marry him for all eternity.  (Louis tells her that the gates are a couple of Caloosa Indian shell mounds, which also made an appearance in Shadow Country.)  Hoping to find and retrieve Ossie (and perhaps their mother in the bargain), Ava enlists the help of the Bird Man, who agrees to guide her to the underworld:
On the morning that my sister eloped with Louis Thanksgiving, the Bird Man gave me his own version of Virgil's advice -- a swamp aphorism, he said, a maxim commonly uttered by the moonshiners, the glade crackers, the plume and alligator hunters, by the famous bird warden Guy Bradley and the Seminole and the Miccosukee tribes alike, and he was surprised I'd never heard it:  "Nobody can get to hell without assistance, kid."  
Thus, all three Bigtree children journey to various corners of hell and back, but I finished the book with the sense that -- sooner or later, maybe millennia from now -- we'll all concede that the only ones who were ever truly suited to life in the Everglades are the alligators.

Karen Russell, born in Miami, first published a collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  I  heard someone read the title story on NPR's 'Selected Shorts' podcast, complete with yips and growls.  This woman clearly has a gift for portraying characters whose childhood is, to put it mildly, out of the ordinary.

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