This was a terrific year for fiction and a particularly strong year for first-time novelists. Some of the literary debutantes who glide through this "10 best" list are so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. Majestically bringing up the rear of the procession are some much-decorated veterans whose sustained achievements in fiction should ensure that the young 'uns don't rest too comfortably on their laurels.
Fiction and nonfiction releases from Dennis Lehane, Ruth Rendell, Karen Russell, Anne Fortier and Rosanne Cash.
In Karen Russell's debut novel, Swamplandia!, set in the middle of the swamps of southern Florida, we find a fictional amusement park full of high-diving gator wrestlers. The park, the "number-one gator-themed swamp cafe" in Florida, is run by the Bigtrees, a family that invents their own mythology of being gator-wrestling tribal royalty. Swamplandia! closely follows the youngest sibling, Ava, who takes it upon herself to rescue the park from ruin after finances go south and family members disappear.
The 29-nine-year-old Russell grew up an hour from the Everglades, in a time when projects to dike and dam the swamp led the way for taming some of the swamplands — but her older family members had memories of a more unrestrained place.
"I grew up in this world sort of perfumed with nostalgia for a much wilder version of South Florida," Russell tells Melissa Block on All Things Considered.
The title of the novel includes the emphatic exclamation point, Russell says, because it fits the high spirits of the novel. The Bigtree family members have created their own fantastical history springing from their alligator-wrestling tradition, but in reality, they're just the lowly operators of a shabby tourist attraction in a swamp. Including the exclamation point hints at the manufactured enthusiasm to be found in such a place.
"[It suggests] something about the incongruity between how badly they want this fantasy to be the reality," Russell explains. "It's all there for me in that exclamation point."
The swamp itself does have its mystical qualities, though. Swamplandia! begins with Hilola, Ava's mother, diving into a deep black swamp-water pool full of alligators as the crowd watching her bursts into applause. But things take a darker turn after Hilola is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Ava eventually has to navigate the haunted, dank Everglades swamplands on her own, in a raft.
"The Everglades ... to me have always looked like an appropriate setting," Russell says, "because the swamp is an absolutely uncanny place. It's neither sea nor land; they're these mangrove tunnels that really do feel like something out of Dante."
As Ava watches her family's alligator theme park start to crumble, she sets off on her own through the swamp's mangrove tunnels and carpets of mosquitoes to find her sister — who was possessed by ghosts and disappeared to the underworld.
This premise, the author says, was a hard sell when she was explaining the novel to friends over the years. Family members suggested moving the setting to Hawaii, or a boat, or "somewhere more pleasant."
While writing, however, she became fascinated with the tricks of the trade of alligator wrestling: For instance, although alligators close their jaws with 2,125 pounds per square inch of force, the muscles used to open them are so weak that simply wrapping a fist around them can keep them shut.
Russell feels that her unique consumption of books as a child influenced her drive to write such strange tales. She made an early bargain with her mother, wherein she would read a children's version of Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens, and would then be allowed to check a Stephen King book out of the library.
"I really think that diet has influenced everything I've written since. ... I loved both; I mean I really loved these sort of lyrical, realist stories, and I definitely listed towards the weirder books," she says.
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.