Reviewed by Kate X Messer, Fri., Feb. 25, 2011
Swamplandia!by Karen Russell
Knopf, 336 pp., $24.95
Karen Russell's debut novel boasts its own exclamation point for good reason. Her text is fleshy and thick – prose so chewy it takes an alligator's snoutful of pearly razors to masticate it. Every noun is cinched in filigree; every verb is an urging forward. Russell's brain might look like the millions of ribboned tributaries of the swamps she so lusciously describes. At age 29, she's already notched the "20 Under 40" (The New Yorker) and "25 Under 25" (New York Magazine) on her bedpost, and her home state's Sun Sentinel suggested that she is Florida's greatest living fiction writer (Harry Crews is apparently safe? Carl Hiaasen ... not so much?). Dang. Dubbing anyone the greatest living anything is heavy enough, but at Russell's age, it's hardcore.
Her 2007 short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was received to much cult, critical, and popular acclaim, and it is from one of these tales, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," that Swamplandia! moves forward, fleshing out the backstory of the Bigtree family, the owners/operators of the Everglades alligator tourist park for which the book is named. Let's not mince words and just add to the din: Swamplandia! reeks of instant classic, a dogleg detour through Florida's literary state, a state that often feels ham-fisted, whether in bent-palm, pastel-colored, or seedy, neon-drenched cliché. Russell manages to wander Florida archetypes without exploiting them. Like the plucky protagonist, alligator wrangler Ava, Russell wrestles, but instead of taking on crocodilian mismatches, her thousand-pound monsters are memories, characters, ghosts, and verbiage. Ava's epic journey to rescue her sister from too-deep flirtations with the spirit world mirrors the young teen's own harrowing coming-of-age odyssey. Through it all, Russell dangles pulpy bits and juicy descriptors like so many live chickens over gaping maws. Sometimes the tease is in the taste; sometimes entire meals make their way down the gullet. She's a writer's writer, an anchor of apologue, wily with words and turns of phrase, a fierce contender against the craftiest allegorical alligator roll. And when darkness – and this tome gets dark – begins to weigh heavy in the bog, she, like Ava, knows all the right countermoves and surrenders to her own buoyancy to guide it all back to the surface, home.