Hot and Sweaty | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Hot and Sweaty

One of the best debut novels in a generation

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Two years ago, the Pulitzer Prize selection committee reviewed three novels as contenders for its selection—and selected none as its finalist. One inference from this decision is that there were no good novels that year. But that is incorrect. Absolutely wrong. (A more accurate assessment is that the Pulitzer reviewers were mule-headed and wouldn't know a great tale if it came up and kicked them in the shins.)

Within the group of Pulitzer finalists (that the committee snubbed) was Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, a remarkable young writer, and certainly worthy of showers of accolades, awards and attention. Russell, 31, is a stunning writer. It is, quite literally, possible to pick up her book, flip to any passage and read prose that would make Joseph Conrad blush. Russell's writing is mature, visceral and confident—and, overall, a joyride to read.

Swamplandia! is about the Bigtree family who live off the coast of Florida (where Russell grew up) and for the previous decades, with flare and a certain amount of invented lore about their family, have entertained mainlanders with alligator wrestling. Fittingly, the story is as fun, alluring and creepy as an amusement park. But when the mom—the main attraction, who dives into pits of alligators to rope shut their jaws—dies (from natural causes, not alligator jaws), each family member wobbles off his or her orbit, and the family falls apart.

Primarily narrated by the youngest daughter, the tale skirts along the edges of Dante's Inferno, plunging into a hell story that sends one daughter lusting for and chasing down Louis Thanksgiving, a dashing ghost shipwrecked 100 years earlier in the Everglades. Meanwhile, the oldest son bails on the family and joins a rival amusement park on the mainland. Throughout, Russell spins an increasingly gripping story, full of quippy observations and clever characters.

"Some things you know right away to be final," explains her 13-year-old character, Ava. "When you lose your last baby tooth, or when you go to sleep for the ultimate time as a twelve-year-old on the night before your thirteenth birthday. Other times, you have to work out the milestone later via subtraction, a math you do to assign significance, like when I figured out that I'd just blown through my last-ever Wednesday with Mom on the day after she died."

Perhaps Russell's one drawback is that, occasionally, she showboats, like a hot shot rookie quarterback. Swamplandia! is not perfect, but it is masterful—one of the strongest debut novels in a generation. Her subsequent short story colection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, was released earlier this year and tells the oddly realistic but fantastically horrifying story about loneliness and companionship. Although touching and darkly beautiful, Swamplandia! wisely avoids sentimentality and instead tells an unblinking coming-of-age story, a swampy tale that will float you through the summer months.

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