Straight Outta Swampton
Karen Russell's debut novel illuminates carnies, nature and innocence lost
Review by Sam Adams
Ava Bigtree is a third-generation "equestrian of Mesozoic lizards"—an alligator wrestler, if you speak mainlander. She lives with her eccentric circus family on a small island off the coast of southern Florida. There, at their bizarre theme-park, the titular Swamplandia!, they've made a business of wowing tourists with death-defying acts in their stadium-seated Gator Pit.
"Alligators! Starry nights! It's like Van Gogh meets Rambo," quips a member of the clan.
But just as Ava is hitting puberty—and coming into her own as the next gator hero—her mother, the show's star attraction, suddenly succumbs to cancer. To make matters worse, a hell-themed amusement park called The World of Darkness has opened downstream. The family business is crumbling.
Thus the stage is set for Karen Russell's colorfully comedic and poignant first novel. Author of the much-praised short-story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Russell's debut is a mesmerizing exploration into the imagination of a grieving child.
Struggling to find answers that don't exist, Ava embarks on a quest with a dark stranger she meets in the swamp. Her stubborn hope to right her downward-spiraling family life is seen in her elegant conviction. "Faith was a power that arose from inside you,” she finds herself thinking, “and doubt was exogenous, a speck in your eye. A black mote from the sad world of adults."
“Alligators! Starry nights! It's like Van Gogh meets Rambo," quips a member of the clan.
But Ava isn't the only one affected by her mother's death. Her Ouija-board-obsessed older sister becomes lovesick and starts wandering off to date ghosts. Her father is helpless, traipsing about in a headdress, heavily in debt. And in a last-ditch effort to save the park, her awkward braniac brother, Kiwi, attempts to infiltrate the competition.
After the oddball tribe is torn apart and thrown into foreign worlds, Ava and Kiwi's trials become the book's alternating storylines. Comic relief is provided in the form of Kiwi, who upon taking a job at The World of Darkness, is introduced to the world of girls, intoxicants and the curious dialect of bro banter. What ensues is a hysterical hybrid of John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius Reilly and Jesse Eisenberg's character in Adventureland.
Ava, on the other hand, is the vehicle for Russell's poetic eulogy to the dying swampland of her native Florida. As Ava traverses the swamp's eerie canals she mourns its depletion at the hands of greedy government agencies, chronicles the hard deaths of its peoples and rejoices in the fascination of its primal chaos. Russell is a historian of the area, and her true-life anecdotes of deadly hurricanes, Native American slaughters and ravaged fauna only help ground the hard loss that Ava feels.
Often, Russell's passages are as dense and noisy with simile as the Ten Thousand Islands are with buzzing insects. "Moths flapped in mute hysterics down the canal," she writes in one instance. "I counted hundreds, flying down river like a second water." Like the insects' frenzied din, there is a a vivid, rapturous energy that her descriptions bring to the mysterious terrain.
Toward the end, the narrative takes an unexpected turn, finally unraveling its intricate balance between a child's stubborn imagination and the stark horrors of reality.
Up to this point, the play between fact and fantasy is so tightly wound that it’s difficult to tell what genre the book lends itself to. And when the swamp muck finally clears, it is a wonder that a book so full of absurdist humor, frightening bestial violence and a child's curious musings could deliver such an earnest and intricate metaphor for loss—or more specifically, the irreparable harm brought about by unnatural forces, and the aftermath of confusion and pain that follows.
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