Some years ago, a popular and macabre forward of an encounter between an alligator and a Burmese python found its way into my inbox. The python had overwhelmed a medium sized alligator and swallowed it whole, only to have the ancient reptile claw at the snake's stomach from the inside. The image in the mail captured an enormous dead python with a ruptured belly, out of which hung a deader alligator. Rarely do we know the name of a swamp but the scene of this inter-species battle is famed. The south-eastern portion of Florida holds some of the largest wetlands in the world - the Everglades. Here, quixotic natives fight daily with invasive species to protect their turf or in this case, marsh. The people who call the Everglades home are just as intriguing. The Seminoles, a pastiche of Native American tribes fleeing European colonization once found refuge in the deep dark of the gator infested swamps. The Everglades have always been an 'away place' where the known world ends and the realm of the primeval begins.
Swamplandia! is about a tribe of sorts. The Bigtrees run an alligator themed amusement park called Swamplandia! on a small coastal island of the same name. The park's museum and gift shop stock gatorish merchandise alongside faux tribal artifacts purchased by pasty mainlanders attracted by the promise and danger of gator wrestling. Their grandfather, Sawtooth Bigtree, was born Ernest Schedrach, the white son of a coal miner from Ohio. "He changed his name to outwit his boss to whom he owed debts. He picked "Sawtooth" in homage to the sedge that surrounded his island; "Bigtree" because he liked its root-strong sound." Life is predictable if isolated on Swamplandia. I couldn't even deduce which time frame the story was set in. I thought it could have been the 1950s. Only later do you realize that its probably set in times much closer to our own. It is perhaps appropriate because the Bigtree children are completely cut-off from the rest of the world and the death of their mother (the famous Hilola Bigtree who'd dive into a pool full of seths as gators are called on the islands) precipitates events that lead to the heart of what this charming novel is about, the end of innocence.
Swamplandia! alternates between the beguiling voice of thirteen year old Ava Bigtree (narrated in the first person) who is being groomed to become the next big alligator wrestler and her seventeen year old brother Kiwi, a socially inept genius (narrated in the third person). Kiwi summarizes the family best when he (for the first time in his life) fills out a medical form that seeks information about his family history; "Well, for starters, my sixteen-year-old sister is crazy, she has aural and visual hallucinations ... my youngest sister is an equestrian of Mesozoic lizards ... my father wears a headdress ... my grandfather bites men now ..." The other Bigtree sibling, Osceola, named for an 18th century Seminole chief becomes infatuated with the spirit world after finding a book that instructs readers how to commune with the dead. Her father doesn't seem very worried about this, remarking that it's probably just a phase despite his other children's best efforts to underscore the seriousness of Ossie's leisure pursuit. "It's a book for witches, Dad" says Ava. "And the underworld isn't a heaven or hell, it's like a whole separate country. Like a Germany under the world." Kiwi supports this concern for their enigmatic sister, taking a shot at her choice of boyfriends; "Did you hear us, Dad? These guys she's dating-they're dead." "Yes," the Chief sighed. "Yes, I'll admit, that is a little peculiar." The fact that we never hear the story from Ossie's perspective accentuates the enigma of her alleged interactions with the spirit world. Russel's approach to magical realism is clever and original like pushing someone into a pool full of alligators only have to be pulled back before hitting the water.
Ava's voice, simultaneously childlike and adult in its disjointed but profound pensiveness turns this great book into something wonderful. She observes the tourists at her family's parks and confesses "I came to hate the complainers, with their dry and crumbly lipsticks and their wrinkled rage and their stupid, flaccid, old-people sun hats with brims the breadth of Saturn's rings. I whispered to Ossie that I wanted to see the register for Death's aeroplane. Who was boarding the plane in such a stupid order?" Kiwi's experience (he runs away to the mainland and gets a dead-end janitorial job the World of Darkness, a hell-themed amusement park where patrons called lost souls) satirically flogs modern, especially corporate, life. His horrible boss "had a master's degree in some undisclosed discipline - he'd offer these facts to anyone who approached him, like a caterer with a tray of bitter hors d'oeuvres." Kiwi, whose home-schooling and lack of contact with others of his age, makes him both intelligent and incompetent. This weedy boy whose idea of a comeback is the word "troglodyte" quickly learns what the world of the mainland expects of him, swallowing his erudite observations and impressive (if mispronounced) command of English lexicon. His consternation at how the world rewards the stupid and the superficial is a wider comment about the state of American society. Thoughts like Oh my God, you are not even an original asshole! You are a plagiarist of assholes" Kiwi keeps to himself. Thankfully, his thoughts do not not become any less articulate or insightful. We are informed that he " considered himself a grammarian of human emotion, knew that anger required a direct object. (I am angry at ______. I hate ________.) "To hate" was a transitive verb. Anger needed an anchor, a plug, a wall. (I am angry because of ________.) Otherwise you had a beam of red feeling searching vainly through the universe. You had a heart that shot red light into space."
Swamplandia! is an exceptionally well-written book about characters and settings that are alien and disquieting and yet endearing and enthralling. What a wonderful last read for the year!