Stripped down, Swamplandia!, Karen Russell's debut novel, is one more young writer's saga of a dysfunctional family. But Russell is a rare talent.
Her book has its roots in "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," a short story from her first collection, 2006's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Russell's setting, the outlandish and fading coastal Florida theme park from which the book takes it title, is inhabited by a clan of "Bigtrees," a self-invented showbiz tribe who have no Seminole or Miccosukee blood but adopt the costumes of buckskin vests, headbands, feathers and gator "fang" necklaces nonetheless.
Mom Hilola Bigtree, the "swamp centaur," is the star performer and core of the family business, adept at the arcane art of alligator wrestling. Four nights a week, Hilola climbs the ladder above the Gator Pit and takes a daredevil dive into danger. Below her, "dozens of alligators [push] their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through 300,000-plus gallons of filtered water." Hilola's husband, who calls himself Chief Bigtree, provides the dramatic voiceover and follows her with a spotlight to build suspense. The teenage Bigtree children — son Kiwi, daughter Ossie and Ava, the youngest at 13 — all work with the gators. The novel is predominantly narrated by Ava , who is determined to wrestle as well as her mother and who cares most about the survival of Swamplandia and of her family.
When Hilola is suddenly stricken with ovarian cancer, Ava tries to convince her father to let her take over her mother's act. Kiwi heads to the mainland, intent on earning the money needed to bail the family out. As Swamplandia rapidly goes broke without Hilola's crowd-drawing high dives, the Chief also heads off to find work, leaving Ava and Ossie to fend for themselves. With the help of a mildewed Spiritualist text, Ossie begins to commune with the dead and then disappears, leaving a note that she is eloping with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving.
Karen Russell was born in Miami and now lives in New York. The story of Swamplandia! first appeared in "Ava Wrestles the Aligator," from Russell's collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, published in 2006.
After this contemporary Southern Gothic opening, Russell — recently included on The New Yorker's "20 under 40" list of standout young writers — takes us through a breathtaking series of spins. She is as agile at describing the creatures and characters of swampland Florida as she is at offering accounts of Ava's youthful yearnings and Kiwi's humiliating low-level job at a competing theme park. A huge chunk of the novel revolves around Ava's attempts to track down Ossie in the underworld, a days-long journey through haunted swamp, with a half-crazy outlier known as the Bird Man.
It's an odyssey fraught with dangers — snakes, storms, cougars, hunters, thirst, mosquitoes and an increasingly ominous Bird Man — and Russell ratchets up the suspense at each turn. Ava's voice, which shifts fluidly from preternatural wisdom to vulnerable cluelessness, rings true to her age. Throughout the book, she dwells lovingly on the endangered beauties of South Florida's Ten Thousand Islands, from the "glacial spires of a long oyster bed" to a "sky-flood" of moths with sapphire-tipped wings. Powered by Russell's vivid wordplay and imaginative energy, Swamplandia! is a continuously alluring phantasmagoria.
Swamplandia! By Karen Russell Hardcover, 320 pages Knopf List Price: $24.95
Chapter One: The Beginning of the End
Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree's idea, and it was a good one — to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights' tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!'s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder above the Gator Pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving board, breathing. If it was windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered — our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights — and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother's body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.
Somewhere directly below Hilola Bigtree, dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water. The deep end — the black cone where Mom dove — was twenty-seven feet; at its shallowest point, the water tapered to four inches of muck that lapped at coppery sand. A small spoil island rose out of the center of the Pit, a quarter acre of dredged limestone; during the day, thirty gators at a time crawled into a living mountain on the rocks to sun themselves.
The stadium that housed the Gator Pit seated 265 tourists. Eight tiered rows ringed the watery pen; a seat near the front put you at eye level with our gators. My older sister, Osceola, and I watched our mother's show from the stands. When Ossie leaned forward, I leaned with her.
At the entrance to the Gator Pit, our father — the Chief — had nailed up a crate-board sign: YOU WATCHERS IN THE FIRST FOUR ROWS GUARANTEED TO GET WET! Just below this, our mother had added, in her small, livid lettering: ANY BODY COULD GET HURT.
The tourists moved springily from buttock to buttock in the stands, slapping at the ubiquitous mosquitoes, unsticking their khaki shorts and their printed department-store skirts from their sweating thighs. They shushed and crushed against and cursed at one another; couples curled their pale legs together like eels, beer spilled, and kids wept. At last, the Chief cued up the music. Trumpets tooted from our big, old-fashioned speakers, and the huge unseeing eye of the follow spot twisted through the palm fronds until it found Hilola. Just like that she ceased to be our mother. Fame settled on her like a film — "Hilola Bigtree, ladies and gentlemen!" my dad shouted into the microphone. Her shoulder blades pinched back like wings before she dove.
The lake was planked with great gray and black bodies. Hilola Bigtree had to hit the water with perfect precision, making incremental adjustments midair to avoid the gators. The Chief's follow spot cast a light like a rime of ice onto the murk, and Mom swam inside this circle across the entire length of the lake. People screamed and pointed whenever an alligator swam into the spotlight with her, a plump and switching tail cutting suddenly into its margarine wavelengths, the spade of a monster's face jawing up at her side. Our mother swam blissfully on, brushing at the spotlight's perimeter as if she were testing the gate of a floating corral.
Like black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled. Her arms rowed hard; you could hear her breaststrokes ripping at the water, her gasps for air. Now and then a pair of coal-red eyes snagged at the white net of the spotlight as the Chief rolled it over the Pit. Three long minutes passed, then four, and at last she gasped mightily and grasped the ladder rails on the eastern side of the stage. We all exhaled with her. Our stage wasn't much, just a simple cypress board on six-foot stilts, suspended over the Gator Pit. She climbed out of the lake. Her trembling arms folded over the dimple of her belly button; she spat water, gave a little wave.
The crowd went crazy.
When the light found her a second time, Hilola Bigtree — the famous woman from the posters, the "Swamp Centaur" — was gone. Our mother was herself again: smiling, brown-skinned, muscular. A little thicker through the waist and hips than she appeared on those early posters, she liked to joke, since she'd had her three kids.
"Mom!" Ossie and I would squeal, racing around the wire fence and over the wet cement that ringed the Gator Pit to get to her before the autograph seekers elbowed us out. "You won!"
Excerpted from Swamplandia! by Karen Russell Copyright 2011 by Karen Russell. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.