Sunday, February 13, 2011

Swamplandia!, Running the Books and Known to Evil

Book 17: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I confess, I don't get it.  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell that is.

Oh, I understand the pre-publication hype that accompanied this novel. Russell is one of those "20 Under 40" writers chosen by The New Yorker as the new literary vanguard. 

Yet, for me, the reality of the novel doesn't meet its expectations.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family. There's mom and dad, Hilola and Chief, and their three children, Kiwi, Osceola and Ava.  The family, who live on an island, run a little tourist attraction. Hilola wrestles gators and dives into a pit full of the creatures.  Chief is the master of ceremonies, while the children perform various functions from selling popcorn to helping with the lights.

The enterprise falls on hard times when Hilola dies of cancer. Kiwi and Chief head to the mainland. Both seeking work to help offset the family's mountain of debt. Chief finds employment in a nearby casino, while Kiwi goes to work for the World of Darkness, a newly opened amusement park that's pulled all the tourist away from the gators.

Ava and Ossie are left to sort for themselves on the island.  Ossie falls in love with a ghost and later elopes with her immaterial lover. Ava, accompanied by a weird island Bird Man, sets off to rescue Ossie from the depths of the underworld. She learns, of course, to no one's surprise that there is no ghost or no underworld, but that hell is here on earth.

Russell's snarky take on the tourists who visit Swamplandia! and the World of Darkness reveal the influence of Jonathan Franzen.  I also thought of John Irving while reading this novel.  Remember Irving's ongoing fascination with bears and wrestlers? Here's its gators and ghosts.

It's difficult to understand exactly what Swamplandia! is meant to add up to.  A longish story on Louis Thanksgiving, the dead Dredgeman that Ossie's fallen in love with, takes up a chunk of the novel.  Otherwise, it's Ava in pursuit of the missing Ossie, cameos by the Chief and Kiwi learning to swap insults with the best of them while adjusting to life on the mainland.

I didn't much like Swamplandia! or its gator or ghosts.

 Book 18: Running the Books by Avi Steinberg

Based on its subtitle, "The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian," I expected more about books in Running the Books. Books play a role, but a minor one.

Running the Books is really a memoir of a Harvard-educated Jewish nerd's experience working in a Boston prison library for two years. 

So much of the book seems predictable: conflicts with the guards, developing inappropriately close relationships with a few of the prisoners and prisoners who make lavish plans for their future only to be gunned down on the outside or fall victim to the drugs that landed them in prison in the beginning.

Running the Books falls short of being a compelling work. The best that can be said is that it's mildly interesting.

Book 19: Known to Evil by Walter Mosley

Leonid McGill, the reluctant hero of Walter Mosley's Known to Evil, is one of Mosley's best characters in many years.

Once a "fixer" for the New York underworld, McGill is attempting to go straight, launching a new career as a P.I.   But McGill's past, and the people that populated it, have a way of holding on.  They're either asking favors of McGill or he's having to turn to them for favors as he unravels the current mystery or protects his family from their own misdeeds.

The mystery at the heart of Known to Evil,  why someone is trying to kill a New York college girl, is merely a framework for these shady figures from McGill's past to re-enter his life.  All of which provides a satisfying friction as McGill is forced to make choices he thought he'd put behind him.

When Mosley truly devotes himself fully to the thriller, he's as good as any genre writer today. Known to Evil displays Mosley's talent at its fullest and finest.

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