Book review: ‘Swamplandia!'

Even if your mom wrestles alligators for a living, she’s still your mother.

Ditto if your dad runs a Florida gator-based theme park called Swamplandia! and calls himself Chief Bigtree. Family is family, and when one falls apart, holding it together can be as tough as prying the jaws of a bull alligator off your arm.

Miami native Karen Russell first introduced the Bigtrees -- the Chief, his wife Hilola, son Kiwi, and daughters Ava and Osceola -- five years ago in her enchanting debut collection of short stories, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

“Swamplandia!” takes up where “St. Lucy’s” left off, backtracking as Ava narrates the family’s history. As the novel opens, the Chief and his kids are bumbling along after the untimely death of Hilola, who not only held her family together emotionally, but was their park’s star attraction. There’s no time to grieve -- as the Chief says, the show must go on.

But when the new hell-themed World of Darkness park opens on the mainland, stealing away Swamplandia!’s customers with state-of-the-art attractions, the threat of financial ruin finally drives the Bigtrees to action.

Seventeen-year-old Kiwi is the first to leave, applying for a job with the rival park in an effort to earn enough money to save the family business. The Chief soon follows, with promises to return once he’s raised more capital on the mainland.

Left alone -- which is to say, 26 miles from civilization after the ferry stops making its daily crossings -- and without a business to run, “many blank, untouristed hours” of free time begin to take their toll on the two girls, who at first while away the afternoons with a homemade Ouija board, hoping to contact their mother’s spirit.

Instead, the sessions turn into a ghostly "Dating Game" for 16-year-old Osceola, who disappears into the woods for dates with the spirits of long-dead boys Ava never sees. When Ossie eventually vanishes, leaving behind a note saying she and her beloved will be living in the underworld from now on, Ava has no choice but to go rescue her.

Her guide materializes in the form of the Bird Man, a cheerfully sinister companion who offers to accompany her to hell to retrieve her sister.

As the tone of Ava’s trip grows increasingly ominous, Kiwi’s life as an employee of the World of Darkness provides comic relief, in chapters where he shares his impressions of his slacker co-workers and their confusing new rituals: “‘Bong’ was on a list of twenty-three new mainland vocabulary words that Kiwi had acquired just that week.”

Despite comparisons to the carnival/theme-park fiction of George Saunders or Katherine Dunn, Russell’s skill at turning the out-of-this-world into believable routine has more in common with the eccentric domesticity of a John Irving novel; in “Swamplandia!,” magical realism is so slyly incorporated it’s hard to tell what’s real from what isn’t. Even her most far-fetched creations are delivered with a poker face, like this description of Ava’s Pied Piper guide:

“I should have guessed it right away. The heavy, tussocked coat, the black wooden whistle for birdcalls, the bright eyes in a shingled face. He was a gypsy Bird Man. There are several such men who travel around Florida’s parks and backwaters, following the seasonal migration of various species of birds. These men are like avian pied pipers, or aerial fumigators.”

Adding to the credibility, the Bigtrees are far from freaks (though they’re decidedly different), and their theme park is not ironic. It has a family history that’s believable, and if the World of Darkness had never opened, it might be there still.

Even so -- a mother who performs on starlit nights, braving “dozens of alligators [that] pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water”? A sister who’s honeymooning in the afterlife? The intersection of heaven and hell just around the next bend of a swampy Southern waterway?

Under the spell of Russell’s dazzling blend of truth and magic, it’s easy to identify with her young characters, whose indecision is compounded by a need to believe: “Doubt felt like a lash caught in my eye,” Ava says, as she travels toward the underworld, “a little hair I had to blink out.”

This often blinkered, uncertain journey through the badlands of adolescence, with their crossroads of grace and menace, is what makes "Swamplandia!" such a spook-house masterpiece. It leads to -- and through -- a world of darkness, yes, but one that's filled with reminders of our own long-ago innocence, when we were just beginning to glimpse those unexpected places where heaven and hell converged.



Karen Russell

Knopf, $24.95, 320 pages