Book #4 for 2012: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
I’m not quite sure how to describe Swamplandia! (The exclamation point, as with Oklahoma!, is part of the title.) It’s a book about the Florida Everglades. (I guess these are the Everglades. I can’t recall if Russell ever uses that term in the book, but it’s set in Florida, there are lots of swamps and an excessive number of alligators, which sounds pretty Everglade-y to me.) It’s about the strange rural yet sophisticated cultures that grow up along the kind of byways through which tourists pass on their way to more respectable resort areas with money in their pockets to spend and kids in their pockets to spent it on. It’s about ghosts. It’s about hell. It’s about rape. It’s about an ending that would seem absurdly coincidental if the book weren’t quite so well written and hadn’t descended so far into a miasma of hallucinogenic surrealism by the time it gets there.
What it’s mostly about, though, is family.
The family it’s about comes from Ohio, but pretends to be a tribe of Florida Indians in order to run a kind of mom-and-pop amusement park called Swamplandia! on an island buried so deep in the swamps that it requires a 40-minute ferry ride to get there. The main attraction at the amusement park — perhaps “circus” actually would be a better term than “amusement park” and would tie this novel in more neatly with The Night Circus, which I read a week or so ago — involves the mother of the family, a former beauty queen in her 30s, diving into a water-filled ditch infested with alligators and emerging safely on the other side. (The alligators, which the family refers to affectionately as “Seths,” are about as dangerous as parakeets.) Swamplandia! does well as a tourist attraction without making anybody rich. And then everything goes, figuratively and quite possibly literally, to hell.
Twin disasters occur almost simultaneously. The mother dies of a particularly virulent strain of cancer, leaving behind her husband, son, two daughters and senile father, then a rival amusement park called World of Darkness opens not too far away and instantly siphons off the tourist trade. The theme of World of Darkness is, yes, hell. All of the rides and most of the snack foods are based on the premise of hot and eternal damnation. And with serious amusement park money behind it, hell proves to be a more a popular destination point than Swamplandia!’s alligator pit, so attractive that as Swamplandia!’s economic fortunes disintegrate, the son jumps ship — or, in this case, island — to go to work there. The father disappears (he has a second job, now desperately necessary to support the family, and begins to focus on it full time) and the daughters spend most of their time keeping house in what remains of their tiny Swamplandia! community, mostly just being teenage girls together.
Now here comes the big twist and I’m going to give it away because it’s not one of those neck popping twists that one might expect from the final 10 seconds of a serialized TV show but just a kind of unexpected place where the story goes: The older of the two daughters falls in love with a ghost. At least she claims that he’s a ghost. And when the hulk of an old dredging barge left over from the Great Depression turns up in an isolated place in the swamp, she claims that this was the location of his death.
To describe the plot from this point on would take too much typing and you probably don’t want me to give that much away. Suffice it to say that the sister with the crush on the ghost decides to marry him (death apparently being no obstacle), the younger sister tries to stop her but loses track of her and employs the services of a local birdman (someone who rids communities of annoying buzzards by chasing them into other communities where he can hire himself out to get rid of them all over again), the brother goes to work at World of Darkness where he inadvertently becomes a local hero, and the resulting set of individual journeys go from the bizarre to the literally hellish. In fact, much of the younger sister’s portion of the story is about a descent into what may really be hell. (The Everglades certainly seem like a good place for it.)
It’s difficult to say if Swamplandia! qualifies as a comedy, a horror novel, a family saga, a soap opera or just a fairly fast read. The characters are less quirky than the environment that they inhabit (which was something of a relief, given the quirkiness of the environment they inhabit) and the family, though they go through some travails that should qualify as nearly Shakespearean in their tragic nature, actually turn out to be surprisingly competent at negotiating the bizarre turmoil of their lives. Which shows, I guess, that being trained to wrestle alligators at a young age is pretty good preparation for just about any bad thing that can happen to you.