Swamplandia! was one of three finalists for this year's Pulitzer (the Prize, which, ultimately, was not awarded). But, for the life of me, I can't figure out why this novel was even in consideration. Russell writes elegant, often very clever sentences. However, these sentences add up to a story that leaves the reader wondering the age-old question: "Is this a story that really needed to be told?"
It's a story that's as slow-moving and dense as the swamp the characters inhabit. Frankly, it's just dull — perhaps you have to be a Floridian to make sense of the "swamp legends" that form the cornerstone of this novel. Perhaps it's just a bad book.
Anyhow, the story is about the Bigtree family who run an alligator-wrestling amusement park on an island in the swamps of south-west Florida. When the mother dies of cancer, and a new theme park called the World of Darkness opens nearby, Swamplandia! slowly fades, throwing the remaining Bigtrees — father, Chief; son Kiwi (17), daughter Osceola (16), and our narrator, daughter Ava (13) — into chaos. Chief disappears to the mainland for an indeterminate period of time — apparently, this is normal. And then, Ossie disappears to chase a ghost lover who died in the 1930s on a dredging ship (it's as nonsensical as it sounds). Kiwi goes off to work at World of Darkness in the hope of earning enough money to save Swamplandia!, and Ava goes off into the swamp with a creepy guy called the Bird Man to try to find and save Ossie.
The narrative alternates between Ava's story (told in the first person) and Kiwi's (told in the third). Part of the point, I think, is that none of these kids are adequately prepared for the challenges of the real world, and therefore, they do things like go off with ghosts and strange men. The supposed drama of the story (though I could not convince myself to care) is the impending conflict between Chief and Kiwi, who is sure Chief has mismanaged Swamplandia!, and only he (Kiwi) can save it. At once, we're supposed to follow along breathlessly with Ava to find out if she'll locate and save Ossie in (from?) the swamp.
I haven't had such a viscerally negative reaction to a book in a long time. Much of that reaction stems from some silly, too-convenient, and then just sickening, plotting in the second half of the novel. I'm honestly perplexed what people who like this novel saw in it (with the possible exception of Russell's sentences). Please tell me! What did I miss here?