Fresh off its electoral gains in the 2010 Census, Florida storms the literary world in Swamplandia!, Karen Russell's technically adept and admirable first novel. Part family saga, part magical realist odyssey, part youth culture satire, the book is above all a celebration of "a peninsula where the sky itself rode overland like a blue locomotive," which seeks to enshrine fictional Loomis County the way Faulkner did Yoknapatawpha County or The Dukes of Hazzard did Hazzard County. In her florid descriptions, Russell, a Miami native, succeeds; with her precocious teen narrators she has more trouble.
The Bigtree family lives in Swamplandia!, "the Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café" in southwest Florida: that's Chief (Dad), Hilola (Mom), Kiwi (17/m), Osceola (15/f), and Ava (13/f). These rural entrepreneurial gator-wrestlers have been introduced to readers before, in "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" from Russell's acclaimed 2006 collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and they retain their intellectual bent. Ava, who handles the bulk of the narration, is an advertisement for literary homeschooling: for her the night sky is "star-lepered," a mosquito is "like a coward's tear," and parking lots are "imbricating." Her language is so dense and Romantic that it is not clear until 60 pages into Swamplandia!, when Kiwi earns $5.75 an hour for a minimum-wage job, that events are taking place in the present day.
This is a difficult problem for a literary writer attempting to speak from a teenager's point of view. On the one hand, smart readers do not want to read the pure excrescence of 13-year-old minds—if they do, there's always Failbook!—but on the other, academic wordplay at this level is tough to believe in kids. Oskar Schell, the much-maligned nine-year-old narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, might also say "imbricating" instead of "overlapping," but Oskar's tics and idiosyncrasies are evidence of a child aiming awkwardly at adulthood, whereas Ava feels like an intellectual aiming awkwardly at childhood.
In the wake of Hilola's death (cancer: "We had to watch her sink into her own face"), Ava goes with an older animal expert, the Bird Man, to find Osceola, who elopes with a ghost in the swamp. The sexual tension that informed "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" is dialed down here: this coming-of-age journey remains curiously neutered until a welcome late-stage twist. Thankfully, by this time, Swamplandia! has split into two stories: in the B-plot, Kiwi leaves the gator farm to join the "mainlanders" of Loomis County. His chapters, told in third-person, ground fluorescent evocations ("The night was a bowl of heat") with interactions with non-Bigtree youth and satirical flourishes (a hit single called "Haters Will Hemorrhage Blood!") that usher Swamplandia! to a satisfying conclusion, where Ava's escape from an alligator brings the novel's biggest thrills.
Those who fell in love with the Bigtrees in "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" will find a lot to love in Swamplandia!; it seems likely that Russell, who's already been compared to Flannery O'Connor, will continue to dredge the Floridian swamps for her tales. But the Southern character most missed here, the one whose straightforward language would have been welcome, is Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.