Never was so much pathos embodied in a punctuation mark.
The jaunty exclamation point at the end of the amusement park's name has one connotation when "Swamplandia!" opens. By the midway point, it becomes an uncomfortable reminder of what has happened to the Florida alligator wrestling venue where the novel is set, and by the end, well, let's just say you can hardly see it without cringing.
Karen Russell's novel — one of three nominees all snubbed for this year's Pulitzer Prize in fiction — sparkles with vivid imagery and bubbles with creative language. The rhythm of the words themselves evokes the mucky island setting where Ava Bigtree and her family run a down-on-its-luck tourist destination that features alligators all named "Seth."
Ava is a 13-year-old who is learning to wrestle alligators with her mother, the star of the family show, when a sudden cancer diagnosis leaves the family in desperate straits. Ava's sister Osceola may or may not be losing her mind, and her brother Kiwi gives up on their delusional father and leaves the island for the mainland, which the family has always belittled and feared.
What follows is a narrative that alternates between Ava — who ventures out into the bewildering Ten Thousand Islands with the mysterious Bird Man to find her sister — and Kiwi, who is trying to help the family by working for the park's competitor, The World of Darkness.
The language bristles with a newness that makes Russell a writer to follow, as when she writes about the tourists who come to Swamplandia! after Ava's mother, the star performer, has died.
"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."
Occasionally, Russell uses words in such unconventional ways that the meaning gets a bit lost, but she redeems herself by pulling the reader into Ava's harrowing adventure. It's one of those stories in which the reader can see the inevitable crisis coming while the main character talks herself into continuing down a dangerous path.
If you read only one book this summer that doesn't have fifty shades of a certain color or shades of beachiness that make it an easy read, let it be "Swamplandia!" You may find yourself scratching imaginary mosquitoes and wishing you could shower off the swamp mud, but you'll also feel like you accomplished something.