Swamplandia: a great Florida novel to treasure and to share

I'm one of those book psychos who alphabetizes everything and protects dust jackets with Mylar covers.

But there are a couple books in my library that are not in such pristine condition — and I love them.

I've been thinking about Kinflicks a lot lately. It was a book that made you use words like "rollicking" to describe it. A big, lumpy, episodic novel, it was filled with white trash, decapitations, lovesick lesbians, fake boobs and family with a serious case of death addiction.

Look at it: the spine is broken, the pages dog-eared and like worn cotton in the hand, and a coffee circle graces the cover.

It is an appreciated book. I lent it to a dozen friends over the years and it helped create a bond and common language between us.

I've been thinking of it lately because Karen Russell's book Swamplandia (Knopf, $24.95) reminds me so much of Kinflicks.

Swamplandia is outrageous in all of the right ways. And one of those rich, engrossing novels you can't stop reading but, paradoxically, don't want to end.

Set in a faded adventure / nature park in South Florida, it's a strictly mom and pop operation until the sainted mom dies.

Dad, the alligator-wrestling Indian chief (“Chief Bigtree”), carries on with the help of his devoted but hapless family, including Ava, the plucky and astonishingly literate teen-ager who narrates the book.

Russell is so great at creating atmosphere — you can smell the caked, dried alligator dung — and in building eccentric but entirely believable characters.

Like Lisa Alther, the author of that long-ago Kinflicks, Russell has virtually come out of nowhere and become a literary superstar. She had one well-reviewed book, of stories but this novel had the wit and confidence of a mature writer — yet Russell is still an infant in writer years.

This is one of those books to a pass around and share and discuss with friends. And if you're worried about your nice hardcover getting disfigured, then here's some good news: it just came out in paperback.

William McKeen chairs the journalism department at Boston University and is the author of several books, including the acclaimed Hunter S. Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist, available in paperback. Mile Marker Zero, his book about Key West in the Seventies, will be published in October.

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