In the opening pages of George Mandel's novel "Crocodile Blood," a young Seminole Indian woman named Majosee is guiding her dugout canoe through the twisted roots and palms of the Great Cypress Swamp in South Florida. At the same time, five young white men, liquored to near-hallucination and certainly to a point where conventional restraints have evaporated, have set out on an alligator poaching expedition. Their paths cross. Rape, sodomy, near-murder occur. Majosee, close to death, is tossed into the swamp, ostensibly to be eaten by a Florida crocodile, a ravenous, extremely rare inhabitant of those waters. The croc, however, doesn't devour the Indian; instead, to the shock of her tormentors, it achieves sexual union with the battered woman.
Obviously, "Crocodile Blood" is not for everyone.
Yet it is, in an equally tantalizing and frustrating way, an interesting book. In its best moments, it has a wondrous word power that is seductive and compelling. But in the same respect, as it blends dreams, realities, terrors and fantasies together, it is frequently evasive, obtuse and overwritten. It is the type of book that can astound the reader with the depth of the author's vision on one page, and then send the reader into angry despair on the very next.
"Crocodile Blood" spans the time from the end of World War II into the Vietnam era. At its core are Majosee, who finds no justice from the stalwarts of civilization, nor from her Indian family; Tate Fenneran, the manipulator-developer, who seeks to turn the small town adjacent to the swamp into a model world of culture, business and ambition; and Gabe Kogen, an artist, subject to epileptic seizures from a war wound, who narrates two-thirds of the book, and who forms the bridge between the worlds envisioned by the mad Majosee and the rapacious Fenneran.
After being brutalized by the five and tossed to the lascivious crocodile, Majosee is nursed back to physical (if not mental) health by Black Junn, a powerful mixed-blood man, equally at home in the swamps or the shanties of poor blacks. Her attackers are arrested and then freed, thanks to a combination of political and legal sleight of hand, orchestrated by Fenneran. Majosee, deformed by the horror of what happened to her, as well as mutilated by her unforgiving relatives (who, oddly, see her less as victim than as perpetrator of the injustice visited upon her), disappears into the swamp. Her revenge upon Fenneran and his great works of civilization is what molds the book.
But this is to oversimplify greatly.
Majosee, it seems, was not only penetrated by the crocodile, but impregnated by the beast. The offspring of the union create the current of "crocodile blood" that flows through the book.
Obviously, the author is speaking in metaphors and allegory. What Mandel is drawing is a contrast between nature and development, between society and the animal that resides in all of us: A world capable of great feats of art and architecture is only a brief step removed from the primordial swamp. Violence of one kind begets violence of another kind. The entire book, in some respects, is a meditation on the nature of evil and violence.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
One of the fundamental problems with the novel is the shift in point of view one-third of the way through. The first portion of the book is a straight third-person narrative. It then shifts into a first-person narration by the artist, Gabe Kogen. Unfortunately, to this reader the opening third was by far the more powerful. Mandel's vision of the swamp was exceptionally evocative and lyrical; the Florida Everglades have often been written about, but rarely with such insight and power. In contrast, it seemed that Mandel failed to endow the subsequent narration by the artist with the same coherence, grace and mood.
In many respects, "Crocodile Blood" is the sort of book most admired by other writers, who recognize the chances Mandel takes with his plot, his characters and his vision. Mandel, a New Yorker, has previously written five praised novels. This time he has constructed, without doubt, an adventurous book, one that seeks to stretch contemporary forms and challenge readers with a provocative mingling of fantasy and reality. Those who welcome the task of reading a prose version of a Bosch painting and nimble enough to tread through the muddy mine field of the author's vision will probably find it rewarding.
But those whose ambitions in reading are perhaps less lofty should think twice.