Okay, you got me.
It’s *not* literally the same book twice.
I was exagggggerrrrating.
But if posts had the tags ‘alligators’, ‘distasteful sexual content’, ‘creepy’ and ‘Florida’ –both Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks would rock the google results. Which, no doubt, is incredibly helpful to you because I’m sure you were recently on a similar search for your next novel, yes?
These two books share something else. And it’s not Russell. They have been highly acclaimed by the reviewers that have read them. When Swamplandia first hit the scene, the NYT splashed it across the front page of its book section. Fantastical! Magical! An amazing debut novel! the reviewer raved. (May I please point out this was reviewed by Emma Donohue, another creepy author of the novel Room?) They named Swamplandia! to their 100 notable books of 2011 and added Lost Memory of Skin to join it. And then, I found myself staring at Swamplandia again on the elite list of the top 5 fiction titles of 2011. These books are exceptionally well liked. (you can feel the lingering ‘but…’ that is coming).
Here’s the conundrum. Is life long enough for TWO Florida books with creeps, sexual predators and the icky sinking feeling that goes with it? Err, sorry, me thinks not. In fact, even starting with Florida in a novel can be enough. (God bless you Zora Neale Hurston & Their Eyes Were Watching God. Still cool, sistah. Still cool.)
Swamplandia! is exceptionally well written and its narrator Ava Bigtree relays the view of her family’s alligator theme park in the Everglades through her 13-year-old lens. Her mother, the belle of the park, has astonished audiences for years soaring off the high dive into a shallow pool of alligators and swimming to safety. It is in the shadow of her mother’s death that we watch Ava, her sister Osceola (Ossie), her older brother Kiwi, and their father Chief BigTree try to survive a rapid decline in the park’s attendance.
The ‘reality’ half of the story is adventure enough. Kiwi leaves home and takes up a minimum wage job at a ‘competing’ tourist attraction at the satirical World of Darkness. His navigation of ‘mainland life’ is complicated and only serves to show just how isolated their childhood has been. The financial difficulties and pain that Chief Bigtree faces are credible and understandable. In its simplest form, it’s a story of watching a family trying hard to not come completely unglued after the death of its matriarch. Fair enough.
But the story is paired with a fantasy story line where Ava’s big sister has disappeared and run off with her boyfriend, Louis Thanksgiving, who is a ‘ghost’. (This, I realize, is quite complicated to explain). Ava pursues her through the swamp, naively led by a letch named The Bird Man. What’s real and what’s fantasy is complicated. What is very clear is that you don’t want this young girl with this freak out in a desolate swamp. Sadly, your instinct proves correct.
Lost Memory of Skin is weightier and more thought-provoking in present day terms. It is grounded in a harsh reality, which is how society treats our sexual offenders. “The Kid” lives under a causeway in South Florida which is strategically located 2,500 feet from any school or where children play. It’s the only location in the area that meets the terms of his probation and, as a result, his neighbors in the encampment are a collection of child molesters, sexual traffickers and derelicts. They’re stuck together, sexual miscreants in their own outcast community.
The Kid’s major transgression is lots of internet porn and obsessive masturbation. He was bounced out of the Army for distributing porn tapes, …but his conflict with the law happens when he meets Brandi18 online. A sexual conversation ensues, and then a scheduled rendezvous at Brandi’s house. Ironically, the Kid is a virgin and he is incredibly nervous to meet Brandi in person. When he arrives at Brandi’s house with porn, beer, and condoms — he is met by Brandi’s father and the cops. Ouch. He learns that Brandi is 16 and he finds himself booked as a sexual predator. At 21 years of age, he has 10 years ahead of him with an ankle bracelet and a record in the national registry of sex offenders. The future doesn’t seem so bright for The Kid.
The trajectory of the story follows with his near friendship with “The Professor”, a mammoth sized sociologist at the nearby university and proclaimed local genius. The Professor wants to research sexual criminals and the relationship with homelessness. He begins to interview the kid. He helps him maintain relationships with his pets, as he thinks it promotes optimism and happiness. He provides financial support and safety in a storm–both figuratively and literally.
But The Professor is not who he seems. In a kooky twist, he reveals his past to The Kid, which is utterly confusing as the boy tries to sort through what in fact is the actual truth. It leaves The Kid in a state of loneliness that definitely triggers empathy. But the reader can’t help but feel a bit frustrated that Russell Banks slapped nearly another story onto what had up to then been a pretty good novel.
While Lost Memory of Skin poses some interesting ethical questions about reform, humanness and our own societal responsibilities — the writing isn’t nearly of the quality of Karen Russell’s. Yes, Russell Banks has been up for the Pulitzer Prize twice, but there is a reason why Karen was named to the New Yorker’s “20 Writers Under 40“. She’s talented and compelling and for that reason, I’d prioritize reading Swamplandia. If alligators and swamp fantasies aren’t really your thang–no doubt she”ll have another gem forthcoming.
She’s definitely one to watch.