SWAMPLANDIA! By Karen Russell. Knopf. 320 pages. $24.95.
Writer Karen Russell is on record stating that, much as she loves reading realist fiction, she couldn't "write a moving tale about a family of struggling car salesmen in Detroit," even if "somebody held a gun to my head."
"But a family of alligator wrestlers in a mythic swamp? That," she continued, "I can do."
Now she has, in "Swamplandia!," a weird and wonderfully inventive first novel that also happens to be a moving, very real tale about a struggling family.
The Bigtrees aren't car salesmen from Detroit, but they're facing foreclosure on their isolated island home in Florida's Everglades once 36-year-old Hilola Bigtree succumbs to ovarian cancer. She leaves behind a dazed husband and three teenagers: a boy named Kiwi and two girls, Osceola and 13-year-old Ava.
Back when customers demanded less because their imaginations did more, Hilola had been the star of the Bigtrees' alligator wrestling show held in Swamplandia!, their 100-acre throwback to carnivals from a distant past.
Hilola's death coincides with the rise of a more conventional mainland tourist attraction: the World of Darkness, featuring a water ride through a whale's belly where "watching people board the ride and get released down the chute was like watching an eerie factory assembly line."
The Bigtree children cope with Hilola's death in different ways -- none of them good.
Hoping to raise money and save their park, the restless Kiwi gets a job in the World of Darkness, and once he arrives, half of the remaining chapters -- narrated in a funny and satirical free-indirect style that is also shot through with poignant longing for his vanished island world -- trace his struggles to make ends meet as an underpaid refugee.
Sharp as her indictment of this world can be, Russell doesn't always seem sure of where she is headed in later Kiwi chapters.
Like Kiwi himself, Russell's heart seems to be back in Swamplandia!, where Ava's extraordinary voice gives us a first-person account of the Bigtree sisters, in a narrative that crosses "Alice in Wonderland" and Peter Matthiessen's "Shadow Country" with a dash of Stephen King's "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon."
What do you do if you're an orphaned teenage girl pining for a dead mother and starved for love, living in a swamp far removed from any nearby town or school -- let alone a ready boyfriend?
If you're Osceola, you stoke a torrid romance with a ghost, around whom you craft a marvelously realized story of his life as a canal digger who died during the Depression. If you're Ava, you fall hard for a creepy, swamp-dwelling drifter who claims to have special powers allowing him to take Ava to the underworld and find her lovelorn, missing sister.
"The whole world was funneling through a crack and reconstituting itself," Ava tells us, and Russell manages to make the sisters' tilted world from the wrong side of that crack seem as real to us as it does to them -- even though part of us also knows that both girls are skirting the edge of madness.
The magic ingredient inducing belief is Russell's incredibly evocative language, as thickly textured and dizzying as the mangrove swamp in which the girls soon lose their way.
Water "bunches and wrinkles" like "black silk." A river becomes a "looking glass for stars." Mosquitoes are "tiny particles of an old, dissolved appetite, something prehistoric and very scary that ... could drain you in sips without ever knowing what you had been."
There are many such images, often completely alien but also utterly true to the changing world of an adolescent girl, in which a once-familiar landscape continually reveals new shapes and shadows that can be alluring, haunting or both.
Russell's re-creation of that world will make it easy to forget tamer fare like the "Twilight" series. It's "Swamplandia!" that's the real deal -- and the first must-read of 2011.
-- Mike Fischer
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel