Ava Bigtreee oozes, squeezes, and glides her way through the mud and muck of “Swamplandia!,” an awesome new novel by Karen Russell. Ava wades a scary crossing from innocence to adolescence, all by way of those endless, grungy waterways threading their way through the Everglades’ mystical Ten Thousand Islands. Our plucky heroine comes from a family of prize-winning alligator wrestlers, one that’s got a reputation to uphold: Swamplandia! is the “Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café in the Area.” The Bigtrees live hippyish, fantastical, homeschooled life. But like any fairy tale worth its magical salt, tragedy strikes early: Cancer’s cruel swipe at her mother is the catalyst for this bubbled, eccentric, and shocking story.
Mark Rylance, in Broadway-via-West-End’s “Jerusalem,” oozes, squeezes and glides, too – but there’s not an alligator in sight. No, he’s hunted by a band of townie police officers outfitted in reflector gear and lame video equipment. “Rooster,” as he’s called, makes his cracked-out, broken, RV home behind a soon-to-be-gentrified development, and as “soon-to-be” becomes “imminently,” he’s given an inglorious heave ho. The stage at the Music Box—fecund and decaying and everything in between—feels like a stop in “Swamplandia!:” Rooster could be some creepy loner on one of the teardrop islands, a Florida expat who’s pulled the plug and left the grid (provided there’s power for the occasional rave.)
But Rooster’s no loner. He’s an indiscriminate lover of all ages and an equal-opportunity drug pusher. Phaedra, a fourteen year-old fairy princess (she’s got strap on wings!) is a particular “beneficiary” of Rooster’s bass-pounding, cocaine-sniffing, hip-gyrating generosity. Big surprise: Phaedra’s dad’s not happy. Rooster’s had kids like these before, but Phaedra is the end, the straw that broke the junkie’s back.
Ava Bigtree has her own Rooster – she calls him “the Birdman.” At first he seems like a magician, a Mr. Tumnus, a Glinda. He’s going to help Ava find her ghost-obsessed sister in the wiles of the waterways! But his secrets [SPOILER!] are more perverted than charmed. Alone in the brush and water, Birdman is exposed as evil – not fun, Wizard of Oz evil, but “Law and Order,” The Lovely Bones evil.
It’s only after the magical realism turns blisteringly, awfully real that you remember the ominous foreshadowing: “Mom was dead, so I thought the worst had already happened to us. I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another—bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.”
Ava’s world was so beautiful, so wacky – she played in th
e gentle curves of the water trees; in the itchy, twining greens; through the smelly, soaking peat. Her thirteen year-old voice is all sparkle and evanescence, all bears called Judy Garland and tomboy fiendishness doused in 70’s perfume. Real world, despicable acts just can’t fit in there. Until they can.
“Swampladia!’s” big surprises mean that the book becomes two genres (fantasy and crime drama) brilliantly squished into one. Somewhere along the crease of this transition, along her parched, mosquito-ridden escape, Ava sheds childhood and emerges as something new. She starts saying reflective things like, “Showers were hated chores for me at home… Where I had been a kid.”
A similar sort of tonal reversal hits Act III of “Jerusalem.” At the play’s end, Rooster [SPOLER!] flaunts himself to the police in silence, wearing a sharp, pinstriped suit. Where’s the sloppy wifebeater? The sports polyester? Where’s the old Rooster? He’s all cleaned up! The ramshackle RV called home is still sprouting detritus in an overgrown, urban jungle pit, but dammit, that three-piece is pressed and tailored. Rooster’s not moving, and has (shockingly) dressed up for the confrontation.
Rooster’s suit-clad turn is more exposure than transformation. The world closes in on him, smashing in the living daylights, until he’s a bloody carcass, branded, bruised, cowering in the filth of the earth: grass, dirt, dirt, blood, dirt, grass.
It’s when he literally digs into that grime that the real Rooster spreads his terrifying, god-like wings. He pulls out old charms, and curses the ground and everyone on it. He beats his drum, he names the people he hates – and, per the power of Mark Rylance’s truly overwhelming performance, you just know that what he says will come to pass. It’s an amazing, soul-shaking, “Emperor Jones”-ian finale.
The wet, green, dirty world holds seeds of the grotesque and mysteriously perverted. When they germinate and bare their beautiful, razor-edged fronds on stage or in literature, you can’t help but want to get cut, stung, or caught.
Sometimes it’s a relief to remember you’re not totally safe.