Monday, May 23, 2011
How many times, while growing up in Florida, did lurid billboards hawking amazing spectacles awaiting at dozens of entertainment venues---ranging from alligator farms and mermaid grottoes of my younger self to strip-clubs with stunning beauties grinning down at my teenaged self---fall far short of supplying what had been promised? SWAMPLANDIA! beckoned in a similar fashion, glowing reviews garnering my interest, only to let me down like so many a tourist trap. Yes, there was entertainment to be had and not all was squandered, but I still felt like a country bumpkin when I put down the book, mildly amused and cheekishly embarrassed that I actually had a little fun. Now, don't get me wrong, I think the book was an interesting read, and despite the increasingly unsettling feeling I got as one trusting protagonist hooked up with a certain lowlife character and she wouldn't listen to my warnings to wise up and escape the quicksand she was headed into, I enjoyed much of the novel and cared about the travails of the Bigtree siblings---all dealing with the dislocating and damaging experience of having their world (cocoon really) torn asunder under the combined onslaught of losing their mother to cancer, their business (an alligator-wrestling emporium) to competition, their father to grief and depression, their grandfather to senility, as they all react in somewhat self-destructive manners. Without giving too much away, the two girls both seemed to slip into fantasy, making them easy prey to inner and outer demons, while the boy---intelligent and striving---chooses a different, but no less immature, path. In some ways, this mishmash of a novel was like reading a first attempt by some unnatural offspring of an unholy union of Neil Gaiman and Dorothy Allison, with a touch of George Saunders thrown in for good measure. I can only conclude that Russell was tapping into the situational depression the children were undergoing. Still there was so much promised: a compelling ghost story, a heroic odyssey, a humorous critique of religious entertainment. But the three story-lines never really pan out, and one feels somewhat duped. Russell's writing is often beautiful and quirky, but also a little too, well, MFAish, and the switching back-and-forth in narrative was jarring at times. This would have been a far better book, I feel, if she had written it in the manner of Louise Erdrich, taking up each story on its own from the perspective of the protagonist, and letting their stories interweave yet stand alone. Russell seems to want to thread three short stories into a novelistic narration, and it didn't work for me. And, I doubt the hardcore advocates of homeschooling will be putting this one on their children's to-read list. Nevertheless, despite these criticisms, in the end I liked the book, and will let the gaudy come-ons calling readers to this young writer's first offering continue to deceive, because in the end the trip to Swamplandia is still worth the price of admission.