The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it. When I was a kid I couldn’t see any of these ridges. It was only after Swamplandia!’s fall that time folded into a story with a beginning, middle, and an ending. If you’re short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell.
As untrustworthy narrators go, the alligator-wrestling 12-year-old Ava Bigtree is one of modern fiction’s finest. While not a purposeful liar per se, she retains the dubious fact-from-fiction separating abilities of any child her age. This is a point that becomes more perplexing the deeper one plunges into the depths of Karen Russell’s wonderfully overstuffed, scaldingly funny, and frightening debut novel. Ava is the kind of girl you want to believe, as her well-trained eye and generous heart make her the unwitting fulcrum of a quickly dissolving family. But somewhere between the ghosts and the bird man and the haunted canal-dredger and the murky, melted reality that frames her buckshot life, you can lose your bearings. As does she.
Ava’s family has as light a touch on life as she, no matter their age. The Bigtree clan are actually offspring of an Ohio laborer who got sick of the workingman’s life and decamped decades ago for a hundred-acre island in the Florida swamps where they played the part of aboriginals, “although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us.” On their isolated theme park of Swamplandia!, the Bigtrees (mother, father, older sister and brother, Grandpa Sawtooth) entertained tourists who took a ferry over from the mainland to watch a classically ragged Southern carnival. Various family members wrestled alligators, sold concessions, barked at the marks, and led tours of nothing much in particular, including a “museum” of dubious historical accuracy.
The great attraction was Ava’s mother Hilola, the “Swamp Centaur”, whose feats of alligator-defying skill were at one time plastered on poster all over the region. Ava’s father, referred only as “Chief”, was the barker and ringleader of their shambolic little paradise, while Ava’s brother Kiwi and sister Osceola (“Ossie”) seem to have little patience for all the mischief and lies and dozens of snapping alligators (collectively named “Seth”) that make up their carny life.
Like most books of impressionable children who gild their surroundings in tattered magic before they’re brought into a knowledge of the wider, crushingly average and venal world, Russell’s is one of paradise lost. In Ava she has the sparkle-toned voice of a swamp spirit, a free-ranging and home-schooled kid whose fleeting awareness of mainland modernity makes it seem a strip-malled and subdivided Gehenna. The events that cast the Bigtrees out come fast and hard when Hilola dies from a sudden and vicious cancer, and then a modern theme park opens up on the mainland (appropriately hell-themed and named World of Darkness) that in a matter of days sucks up the remnants of their customers.
The spinning Bigtree top slows without the influx of fresh marks, and the world begins to creep up on them. Chief takes off on one of his mysterious “business trips” (which Hilola had always said involved finding new investors for their piratical venture), while the overly serious Kiwi goes looking for work to help with the family finances, and pale-skinned, moony Ossie starts wandering off in a haunted daze like a love-stormed teen; soon she’s confessing that she’s fallen in love with a ghost.
Russell departs from Ava’s luminously vivid narration – which manages to echo that of Harper Lee’s Scout while not aping it – only for Kiwi’s journey into off-island normalcy. There, he finds a job with the enemy at World of Darkness, and starts to learn the strange ways of the minimum-wage employee:
…beyond the grid of Army Corps levees and drainage canals, across a triangle of new highways that slide over and under one another like snakes in a warren… Kiwi Bigtree sat on the burning hood of a powder blue Datsun and watched with an anthropologist’s prudish fascination as his new friend Vijay packed and smoked a bong. “Bong” was on a list of twenty-three new mainland vocabulary words that Kiwi had acquired that week.
The novel takes a risk transitioning from Ava’s narrating, who so strongly carries the bulk of the novel to Kiwi’s sharper, more clear-headed and rational third-person point-of-view. But Russell’s exploration of the sunny surreality of the World of Darkness and the animal packs of hormonal teens who staff it has a sting to it which perhaps keeps the book from drifting away into ghostly apparitions. Because while Kiwi explores the modern world, Ava drifts deeper into the swampy mysteries of her surroundings, pulled that way by an oracular, dangerously unmoored and soon disappeared Ossie and the sudden appearance of a strange breed of nomadic bird summoner, who offers to serve as Ava’s guide to the underworld. Grace, of a sort, is regained, but at a price.
As Ava, Russell writes with scattered magic of a highly untrustworthy (and thusly utterly addictive) variety, one of swampy darkness and spell-tinged madness that creeps up on the frayed outlines of imminently foreclosed-on Florida. She takes her story into troubling places but never loses the comic, theatrical thread that hooks you in to begin with (assisted all along by some sprinklings of carny witchery which would seem cheap in less-talented hands).
Read this book, pass it on to those who deserve it, and be thankful that the world contains artists like Karen Russell.