Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

The much-anticipated debut novel by Miami native Karen Russell is in many ways concerned with those superstitious trinkets we all carry around and depend on to ward off bad luck. For proof, look no further than the exclamation point in its title. Swamplandia! doubles as the name of an alligator-wrestling theme park off the Floridian coast, run by a family of white people who dress up as Native Americans, and who have conveniently rechristened themselves the Bigtrees.

Hilola Bigtree was the family’s matron as well as the park’s big star. Her trademark routine involved diving into the Gator Pit, swimming around dozens of lurking alligators, and emerging on the other side, safe and triumphant and beaming in a two-piece bathing suit. But when Hilola suddenly dies of ovarian cancer—at the same time that a rival park, armed with a slick ad campaign, opens on the mainland—Swamplandia! slides into debt and obscurity. As time goes on, that exclamation mark in their park’s name becomes the Bigtrees’ sad talisman, a promise of excitement that grows more and more desperate with each passing week.

Swamplandia! picks up in the aftermath of Hilola’s death. Her husband, the Chief, comes up with an on-the-fly business model he calls “Carnival Darwinism”, which involves a bunch of new equipment everyone knows they can’t afford. He and Hilola’s three teenaged children each come up with their own dream of a better tomorrow. Kiwi wants to attend high school on the mainland. Osceola grows obsessed with black magic and speaking with the dead. And Ava, the youngest of the batch at 13, is convinced that if she trains hard enough, she can take over her mother’s act.

It’s telling that Russell, who last year was anointed by the New Yorker as one of the top 20 American writers under 40 years of age, cut her teeth with a short story collection (one of which inspired this novel). Indeed, much of Swamplandia! reads like several different stories spun out of the same premise, and only uneasily co-existing with one another. Kiwi’s mainland coming-of-age tale feels has basically nothing to do with the darker, eerier Southern Gothic soup that Ava and Osceola find themselves in—and the lightness of the former, as well as the alternating-chapter structure, makes for a series of unwelcome interruptions on the chilling violence slowly building in the latter.

What the siblings’ stories do have in common is their pragmatic swamp mentality, obviously, as well as Russell’s sticky, detail-heavy language. Here’s a description of Kiwi’s weedy boss: “Possibly Carl Jenks had at one time wanted to be a kind man, a decent and charitable man; and then puberty had come along and slapped this almost translucent blond mustache across his face.” The description already feels complete, but Russell takes a repetitive second shot at it: “The mustache was Carl’s most distinctive feature—the hairs grew in achromatic and already bristling.”

For the most part she’s able to successfully walk the fine line between evocative and suffocating, but in a way that’s no relief; after all, watching a tightrope walker make it across the rope without falling doesn’t cure your jangled nerves from the knowledge that, at any moment, she easily could have.

The brightest spots in Swamplandia!, however,are blindingly good. When Osceola recounts to Ava, in eerily precise detail, the life story of her spectral boyfriend, a dredgeman who died while clearing a canal in the 1930s, the effect is immediate, and truly harrowing. And, for all their incongruity, the way Russell threads the needle between the two main stories at the novel’s end deserves no less than a standing ovation.

The novel also makes a compelling, and compellingly subtle, case for dispatching with childish good-luck charms. In the end, Swamplandia! is a novel about learning to see our muddy world through clear eyes. No matter whether you’re wrestling alligators or trying to get your GED armed with only a patchy home education, you have to make your own luck.

Knopf Canada, 336 pp, $27.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The Edmonton Journal, March 13, 2011)

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