A Quick Thought on the Pulitzers and the Greatness of ‘Swamplandia!’

I’m excited to read all three of the finalists for drama: the winner, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “Water By the Spoonfull,” about an Iraq war veteran working in a sandwich shop, and Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet,” about Lebanese-American family sound particularly entertaining. And I’m working on Manning Marable’s Malcolm X biography, about which more to come when I finish. But I’m sorry not to see a winner in the fiction category.

I think most people will assume that there isn’t a winner because the panel couldn’t get their minds around David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published and unfinished novel The Pale King. My regret is that Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! didn’t get the prize, and on a more personal note, I thought that book went down unusually earlier in the Morning News’ Tournament of Books. Swamplandia! is one of the most outstanding books I’ve read recently, a searing story about man’s attempt to reshape the land to his own desires, a family’s attempt to create and hold on to a grand mythology in the face of reality, and one of the most original young female protagonists in fiction in a long time, Ava Bigtree, who is half an orphan and possessed of a wild dream to succeed her dead mother as Florida’s most impressive alligator wrestler.

Swamplandia! is a magical realist novel. It features ghosts and spirits, and a miraculous voyage through the Florida Everglades. It’s also a picaresque, a novel that features a faux-Native American water park, a competing amusement park designed to replicate the experience of being in hell, casinos, miraculous rescues, and an enormous amount of teenage drama. But Karen Russell marshals all of those elements to tell stories about poverty, alienation from society, sexual maturity and sexual assault. Ava’s upbringing is decidedly unconventional: she’s grown up in a family that presents themselves as Native Americans even though they’re not, and that lives apart from mainland society. Ava, her sister Osceola, and her brother, Kiwi have never attended school. Their father is wildly unrealistic about their prospects of resurrecting the park after Ava’s mother dies, denying them their star attraction in a business that was ill-equipped to compete with modern entertainment anyway.

When their father abandons his children in promise of restoring their former glory, it’s meant to be a heroic quest that ends up revealing the rotten pillars that propped up a dream. Osceola takes up with a ghost who died as part of a quixotic government scheme to tame Florida’s swamps, conflating sexual and spiritual possession in a brilliant metaphor for the all-consuming nature of first love. And when Ava goes looking for her sister in the company of a mysterious man in whom she invests trust he proves to be manifestly unworthy of, her journey beyond civilization and to the gates of Hell are a powerful meditation on what it means to venture out into a world that refuses to abide by the rules you’ve been promised, and what it means to summon up the courage to survive trauma.

Pulitzer Prize-winning books are supposed to illuminate some aspect of American life. It would have been nice to see the committee give Russell some recognition for the kinds of American lives she chose to shine Everglades light on, and the mastery she brings to the task.