The main reason I was excited about a girlfriends’ getaway to the Gulf coast last month had little to do with bike rides or beach walks. More than anything, I went to southwest Florida hoping to see alligators. Lots and lots of alligators.
I’d just finished “Swamplandia!,” a novel by Karen Russell that had been on my “to read” list for a while. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012, the year the board couldn’t come to a consensus and thus failed to award the prize. The cover of “Swamplandia!” features a huge gator, jaws open wide, rising out of the marsh grass. That was reason enough for me to snatch the book up when I saw it on the library shelf.
Set in the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida, “Swamplandia!” tells the story of the dysfunctional Bigtree family. The Bigtrees operate a shabby tourist trap deep in the Everglades. Alligator wrestling is the main attraction. The star of the show is Hilola, wife to Chief Bigtree and mother to three teenagers—Kiwi, Osceola and Ava. The climax of each performance at Swamplandia! comes when Hilola ascends a tall ladder and, much to the delight of the audience, plunges into a pool filled with dozens of gators. She’s ready, willing and able to wrestle and subdue them should the need arise.
Hilola’s life comes to a tragic end in the book’s first chapter. SPOILER ALERT: Ovarian cancer, not an alligator, killed her. Following her death, the family and Swamplandia! descend into chaos.
Chief Bigtree returns to the mainland, leaving his motherless children to fend for themselves. Kiwi takes a job at a rival theme park called World of Darkness. Osceola falls in love with the ghost of a young man who met his untimely death decades ago in the unforgiving swamp. Ava, determined to reunite her family and save what’s left of Swamplandia!, assures the show’s dwindling number of visitors that she is Hilola’s understudy and that they’ll still get to witness world-class alligator wrestling.
But the tourists soon quit coming. Ava and Osceola begin spraying their dirty clothes with Hilola’s perfume instead of doing laundry. All of their meals come from the concession stand. Then one day Osceola sets out in pursuit of her phantom lover and doesn’t come home. Naturally, Ava goes in search of her sister, aided by a creepy vagabond known as Birdman. Who turns out to be one of the most bizarre literary characters I’ve encountered in a long, long time.
Because I don’t want to spoil the story, I won’t say more. I won’t tell if Ava finds Osceola. Or if Chief Bigtree and Kiwi return to the island. Or if Swamplandia! survives.
But I will say that this novel is one of the most unusual and unforgettable I’ve read in a long time. Not necessarily in a good way. It’s a book so weird that I’m hesitant to recommend it to readers who favor mainstream fiction. On the plus side, “Swamplandia!” did manage to stoke my lifelong fascination with alligators.
A fascination I hoped would be fed on a visit to the swamps of south Florida. If you’re wondering if I had gator encounters while I was there, stay tuned.
(February 14, 2016)