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The Great Floridian Novel

In her stunning debut, Karen Russell follows a family set adrift by grief and their fight to keep their alligator-wrestling theme park

(Aaron Meshon)
By Nicole Lamy
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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If Charles Dickens had made it as far as the Everglades during one of his US reading tours, he may have been inspired to produce characters suspiciously similar to the Bigtrees, the family at the center of Karen Russell’s debut novel, “Swamplandia!’’. The Bigtrees — a clan of downtrodden alligator wrestlers, struggling to hold on to the theme park of the title — would be at home among any of the outsized personalities in Dickens’s cast of eccentrics.

Russell, who on the merits of her story collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,’’ was chosen by Granta as one of the Best Young American Novelists, has more recent literary forebears, too — among them Kathryn Davis, George Saunders, and Katherine Dunne. Yet despite her long list of influences, the beguiling alternative reality — part picaresque, part fairy tale — which Russell conjures in “Swamplandia!’’ — is dazzlingly original.

The narrator of this spectacle is 13-year-old Ava, the youngest of the Bigtree clan of Ten Thousand Islands, who is desperately trying to keep the family’s traditions of showmanship alive. Ava is a sucker for her family’s weird history, which is chronicled on the walls of Swamplandia!’s “museum.’’ In 1932 the family’s patriarch, Grandpa Sawtooth (born Ernest Schedrach in Ohio), was flimflammed by a realtor into buying a parcel in the Everglades that was almost entirely under 6 feet of water: “The only real habitable ‘property’ in sight was the island he later named Swamplandia!: a hundred-acre waste. What the cheerful northern realtors were calling — with a greed that aspired to poetry — the American Eden.’’

According to Bigtree lore, family fortunes shifted on the first day in the swamp when Grandpa and his new bride, Risa, developed an immediate affinity for their new co-inhabitants, the alligators. It seems perfectly natural then, according to the book’s screwball logic, that he should, despite a notable lack of Seminole or Miccosukee blood, assume an Indian identity, open an alligator-wrestling theme park, complete with 98 of the reptiles and a gift shop, and name it, Swamplandia!. Grandpa Sawtooth’s long shot pays off, and the attraction becomes “the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café in the area.’’ However, when tragedy cuts down the family, Swamplandia!’s popularity nosedives, dragging the Bigtrees down with it.

As the novel opens, the Bigtrees have just lost their headliner, Hilola — mother of Kiwi, Osceola, and Ava — to cancer. After years of cheating death during performances, her family is stunned to discover that she is mortal. Without the talents of its star performer the park stops drawing tourists; and while Swamplandia! teeters on the edge of foreclosure, the teenage children and their father, Chief Bigtree, become unglued by grief.

Without their mother to guide them, and their father gone on an interminable business trip, the Bigtree teenagers try to escape their own hells by flirting with darkness. Seventeen-year-old Kiwi, a Latin-conjugating autodidact, makes a break for the mainland, determined to make money to save Swamplandia! the only way he knows how — at a theme park. At the World of Darkness, guests called Lost Souls swim in a pool called the Lake of Fire, buy inflatable beach balls called Brimstones, and eat at Beelzebub’s Snack Bar. Kiwi joins the miserable staff at this hell-themed park as a member of the janitorial crew, making minimum wage until fate makes him a hero twice over.

Back on their island home 16-year-old Osceola, dreamy, lonely, and susceptible to magical thinking, starts communing with ghosts, including one named Louis Thanksgiving, a dredgeman, dead since the ’30s, with whom she elopes to the underworld. Ava, always “a fairy-minded kid, a comic book kid,’’ takes off after her sister hoping to rescue her and maybe meet up with their mother. She enlists the help of a cryptic and creepy guy called Birdman, who pilots a skiff around the mangroves and promises Ava that he knows the proper route to the land of the dead. And although they never literally make it there, Ava’s journey is harrowing enough to qualify as hell.

The trip Ava takes with the Birdman makes up the bulk of the novel, and sometimes their journey gets mired in, well, the swamp. The story gets stuck in the details of the ecosystem of the Everglades. As the names of flora and fauna pile up, atmosphere builds, the suspense lags, and the pace, which could have moved like a thriller’s, reads more like a naturalist’s guide filled with research that Russell probably felt was too rich to waste. But who can blame her really when the vocabulary of the swamp is so delightfully tongue-twisting and musical — marl, gharials, anhingas, and melaleucas? The words alone conjure the eerie otherworldliness of the Everglades.

If you’ve visited the outer reaches of the peninsula, you know that Florida is a kooky place. Just an hour’s drive from the antiseptic strip malls of Coral Gables and the splashy pleasures of Miami lies the less cultivated landscape of the Everglades. Crime writers — among them Jeff Lindsay and Carl Hiassen — have made good use of the friction between Florida’s sunny and seedy sides. However, I had to reach back pretty far — “To Have and Have Not,’’ “The Yearling,’’ “Their Eyes Were Watching God,’’ “Continental Drift,’’ sort of — to come up with other novels rooted in Floridian culture. Why haven’t more contemporary writers written about the Sunshine State? “Swamplandia!’’ is a welcome addition to Florida’s literary canon.

Like the state itself, “Swamplandia!’’ is a crossroads where the wild and the tame, the spectacular and the mundane meet; underneath the hubbub of the fantastic lies a family of misfits at sea in their grief — theirs is a story that is as ordinary as it is heartbreaking.

Nicole Lamy is the books editor of the Globe. She can be reached at nlamy@globe.com.

SWAMPLANDIA! By Karen Russell

Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95