Every morning at my parents' condo in South Carolina, alligators appear in the back yard. Lying statue-still in the crisply cut grass, they look as fanciful as unicorns, though unicorns wouldn't snatch neighbors' poodles or lunge at the lawn mower. Forty years ago, my little brother and I used to feed them marshmallows (illegal now; incredibly stupid then). In one of our old 8mm home movies, you can see the sugary white dots disappearing as a seven-foot monster glides through the water before turning sharply toward the shore where we're standing. A hail of marshmallows rains down as the alligator runs up the bank - then the empty plastic bag, then the screen lurches and goes black.
Karen Russell's first novel, "Swamplandia!," took me back to that surreal childhood encounter. With a mixture of comedy, terror and nostalgia, she conjures up a run-down theme park 30 miles off the Gulf Coast of Florida, a tourist trap run by a family of phony Indians named the Bigtrees: "Catch the late show, Saturdays. Alligators! Starry nights! It's like Van Gogh meets Rambo." Indeed, this is no Disney World; the major attraction is "Live Chicken Thursday," when alligators leap out of the water to snatch hens from a clothesline. People come by the hundreds for a swampy serving of grotesque death and macabre slapstick. An experienced alligator wrestler, Chief Bigtree, warns that the reptile "can hoard its violence for millions and millions of years. . . . It's pure appetite in a leather case."
Russell's work has appeared in "Best American Short Stories," and she's been blessed by the New Yorker, Granta and the National Book Foundation, so this is a debut with an unusual amount of momentum behind it - all well deserved. If you read "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" (2006), you'll recognize this novel as an expansion of the opening story in that celebrated collection. But at more than 10 times the original story's length, "Swamplandia!" gives those giant lizards room to roam.
As the novel begins, Mrs. Bigtree, who dazzles spectators by diving into a dark pool of several dozen alligators, is killed instead by a fast-moving cancer. The park slips into bankruptcy, and the family stumbles around in a daze of unexpressed grief. Grandpa is consigned to a nursing home, and Dad takes off to the mainland with vague plans to raise money. "Swamplandia!" needs to dispatch its adult characters quickly because this is a story about three lost siblings, young people burdened with more responsibility, affection and sorrow than they can possibly carry alone.
Russell has perfected a tone of deadpan wit and imperiled innocence that I find deeply endearing, but readers allergic to self-consciously quirky characters should take precautions. On this almost make-believe island, the Bigtree children home-school themselves with moldy books from a Library Boat abandoned in the 1950s. They speak with preternaturally mature knowledge without realizing how little they know of the real world. One wrong move and the novel's poignancy could slip into cuteness.