Lately, I’ve been thinking of an observation my writing professor Craig Seymour once shared: that writers frequently sell their books based on the first few chapters. It certainly seems the case in some of the recent bestsellers I’ve read—and Swamplandia! is another such example.
I was initially captivated by Karen Russell’s twisted tale of the disintegrating Bigtree family and their failing Florida theme park, Swamplandia! Thirteen-year old Ava struggles to carry on her mother’s legacy of alligator wrestling; older brother Kiwi tries to raise funds for the family by working at the competition, World of Darkness; sister Osceola, sixteen, succumbs to love affairs with ghosts. The characters are by turns intelligent, brave, and driven but also—due to their island isolation—heartbreakingly naive.
At the halfway mark, however, Swamplandia! lost its narrative propulsion. Befuddled by mainland culture, Kiwi endures one coarse indignity after another, as if Russell is completing a checklist—nasty teen peers: check; exploitation of young workers: check; night school insanity: check; misadventures with booze and girls: check. In alternating chapters, Ava journeys downriver with the enigmatic Bird Man to find Osceola, who’s decamped to the underworld with her ghost fiancé.
This is a farfetched development even for this fantastical novel and seems designed to allow Russell—via Ava—to recount low points in Florida history: the seeding of the invasive meleleuca tree to dry up the swampland in the 1940s, a Labor Day hurricane that killed thousands of black laborers. All leading up to another item on the checklist: rape of the innocent. (Why the Bird Man had to travel across several ecosystems with Ava before he assaults her is still one of the novel’s mysteries.)
The later chapters are tedious. Then the whole mess is quickly cleaned up in a couple of pages, with Kiwi’s rescue of his sisters, a reunion with their missing father, drugs for Osceola, and mainland high school for all three Bigtree teens—a remarkably flat ending for a book that critics hailed as “deeply haunted,” “wonderfully imaginative,” and “routinely ravishing.”
I’m beginning to wonder whether book reviewers also assess books based on only the first few chapters.