By Karen Russell
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 336 pages
In “Swamplandia!” Karen Russell puts the Bigtree family behind the eight ball and keeps it there for what sometimes seems like a mercilessly long time. The Bigtrees make their living running an aging theme park called Swamplandia! on a small island off the South Florida coast. Lured by billboard ads of a 10-foot alligator surrounded by the Bigtrees “wearing Indian costumes … although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us,” tourists ferry over to the island for the starlight show. Chief Bigtree - aka Dad - revs up the mood, keeping the spots on his wife, Hilola, as she dives into a pool of alligators and breaststrokes her way through them. She wrestles them too, as do her kids, Kiwi and 13-year-old Ava, who boasts that she is her mom’s understudy.
When the tourists finish cheering the show, they can wander through the Swamplandia! Museum with its snapshots of the Bigtrees or buy hot dogs and souvenirs from the shop. With every dime they spend helping and all the Bigtrees working, Swamplandia! just about keeps the family going until disaster strikes a double blow. Hilola dies of cancer, and a super-duper modern theme park opens on the mainland. Pretty soon, the tourists stop coming. Even the ferry eventually stops coming. Always cut off on their island, the Bigtrees are virtually bankrupt and seriously short of resources to cope with the devastation.
Without Hilola as the center of the family, they go it alone, not pulling together but stumbling along, each trying to look out for the others but wandering into his or her own real and metaphorical wilderness.
The Chief heads to the mainland, seemingly abandoning his kids. Seventeen-year old Kiwi decides that hope for the family must lie in his bailing it out financially, so he takes a job at the World of Darkness, the theme park that stole Swamplandia!’s business. An autodidact stocked with a lavish store of random general knowledge, Kiwi experiences life as a minimum-wage worker as a hell of heat and abuse and bewildering irrationality.
Meanwhile, Ava follows her older sister Ossie into the realm of spirits and Ouija boards, where they hope to contact Hilola. It doesn’t work, but Ossie hooks up with what seems to be the spirit of Louis Thanksgiving, who worked on one of the dredgers that tried to drain the Florida swamps in the 1930s. Eventually, she goes off with him, and Ava, knowing something is seriously amiss with Ossie and her ghostly boyfriend, takes off after her.
She is led by a strange Birdman who pilots their skiff through the mangroves and the saw-grass prairies and eventually between the two ancient American Indian shell domes that he claims are the gates of the underworld. Ava believes that Ossie, Louis and her mother must all be there, but she finds the other side to be exactly like the Florida coast she has always known.
Ava is the first-person narrator of much of the novel, and through her eyes we see the alligator park as both very ordinary and very weird and Hilola and the Chief as both the powerful parents every child has and as slightly pathetic people bravely wresting a living from the unlikeliest source. We also see Ava growing, slowly realizing that Ossie is losing touch with the real world and then, on the nightmarish journey through the swamp, gradually understanding that the Birdman, though often a good companion, is also a threat.
When Ava is not narrating, Ms. Russell tells her story from Kiwi’s point of view. He is the classic naif, charming, unworldly, but serious. Even when he is suffering most in the World of Darkness, he has the aura of a young man who will come through - as he does. Ava’s case is not so clear-cut. The swamp is dangerous, and both with and without the Birdman, she is at risk. But her quest for Ossie, like Kiwi’s for money to rescue the family and go to school, is a journey toward adulthood and healing.
One of Ms. Russell’s many talents is that she characterizes these two teenagers so deftly, so sympathetically that their oddities never make them seem bizarre or ever steal the spotlight from their pain and effort. They are good kids, and much of the energy that drives this novel is that Ms. Russell makes sure readers root for them.
Another of Ms. Russell’s talents is her ability to describe the landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes and, most significantly, swampscapes and wildlife of southern Florida. She shows us the buzzards “turning in circles, like party ponies around a mainland carousel,” an egret sitting on a cypress branch “like a pearl earring,” a bobcat “shouldering” its way, mosquitoes “like tiny particles of an old appetite,” plants growing “razor-straight … and fingered with so many tiny knives.”
While this skill often delights, at times it runs away with the author. The multitude of descriptions of the interior of the attractions at the World of Darkness and, especially, the many episodes of Ava’s journey through the swamps, though inventive and effectively phantasmagoric at first, become repetitive, almost self-indulgent, by the end of the novel.
This complaint notwithstanding, “Swamplandia!” is an astonishingly assured first novel with many rewards for its readers. Most important is its portrait of people struggling with the uncooperative world. Others include its clever yoking of literary tradition, its description of parts of Florida’s history not widely known outside the state and its fine evocation of the state’s swamps and waters.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.