Stripped down, Swamplandia!, Karen Russell's debut novel, is one more young writer's saga of a dysfunctional family. But Russell is a rare talent.
Her book has its roots in "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," a short story from her first collection, 2006's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Russell's setting, the outlandish and fading coastal Florida theme park from which the book takes it title, is inhabited by a clan of "Bigtrees," a self-invented showbiz tribe who have no Seminole or Miccosukee blood but adopt the costumes of buckskin vests, headbands, feathers and gator "fang" necklaces nonetheless.
Mom Hilola Bigtree, the "swamp centaur," is the star performer and core of the family business, adept at the arcane art of alligator wrestling. Four nights a week, Hilola climbs the ladder above the Gator Pit and takes a daredevil dive into danger. Below her, "dozens of alligators [push] their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through 300,000-plus gallons of filtered water." Hilola's husband, who calls himself Chief Bigtree, provides the dramatic voiceover and follows her with a spotlight to build suspense. The teenage Bigtree children — son Kiwi, daughter Ossie and Ava, the youngest at 13 — all work with the gators. The novel is predominantly narrated by Ava , who is determined to wrestle as well as her mother and who cares most about the survival of Swamplandia and of her family.
When Hilola is suddenly stricken with ovarian cancer, Ava tries to convince her father to let her take over her mother's act. Kiwi heads to the mainland, intent on earning the money needed to bail the family out. As Swamplandia rapidly goes broke without Hilola's crowd-drawing high dives, the Chief also heads off to find work, leaving Ava and Ossie to fend for themselves. With the help of a mildewed Spiritualist text, Ossie begins to commune with the dead and then disappears, leaving a note that she is eloping with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving.
After this contemporary Southern Gothic opening, Russell — recently included on The New Yorker's "20 under 40" list of standout young writers — takes us through a breathtaking series of spins. She is as agile at describing the creatures and characters of swampland Florida as she is at offering accounts of Ava's youthful yearnings and Kiwi's humiliating low-level job at a competing theme park. A huge chunk of the novel revolves around Ava's attempts to track down Ossie in the underworld, a days-long journey through haunted swamp, with a half-crazy outlier known as the Bird Man.
It's an odyssey fraught with dangers — snakes, storms, cougars, hunters, thirst, mosquitoes and an increasingly ominous Bird Man — and Russell ratchets up the suspense at each turn. Ava's voice, which shifts fluidly from preternatural wisdom to vulnerable cluelessness, rings true to her age. Throughout the book, she dwells lovingly on the endangered beauties of South Florida's Ten Thousand Islands, from the "glacial spires of a long oyster bed" to a "sky-flood" of moths with sapphire-tipped wings. Powered by Russell's vivid wordplay and imaginative energy, Swamplandia! is a continuously alluring phantasmagoria.