Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The New Yorker: "The Dredgeman's Revelation" by Karen Russell


Because the ending of this fiction is so odd, I was under the impression that it must be an excerpt from Russell’s forthcoming novel Swamplandia! (what’s with exclamation points in titles, these days?), but in discussing her inspiration for this piece (see Q&A with Karen Russell) she makes it sound more like an outtake than an excerpt:

What was the inspiration for the piece included in the “20 Under 40” series?
I was working on a novel draft for what felt like the thousandth year, doing some pretty heavy research into Florida history and the Army Corps Dredge and Fill campaign, and this little story within the story opened up. I wanted to try a sort of fantastical-historical story—Hitchcock meets the swamp.

So, I don’t know. I don’t think it works very well as a short story, but I do think Russell has a winner in the character of Louis Thanksgiving, the too-cheerful boy who was born dead but who has managed nonetheless to become a teenage dredgeman in the Florida swamps during the Depression. Louis is first hired onto a boat with a crew he comes to love. But when that contract ends, his new situation is less wonderful. He’s still cheerful and happy to be working (and not to be with his awful foster father), but the conditions deep in the swamp on this boat are grim, and his co-workers view him suspiciously.

There’s an accident—it’s an old boat—and then . . . what happens? He’s off duty, watching a pair of otters when a roar erupts from the engine room just 25 feet away. Whatever has happened, his brain is in a fog and he’s not seeing too well. He discovers he’s bleeding, and now he’s pitched forward onto the railing. But then he makes it to the engine room and sees Gideon, who seems dead but then isn’t. Then, almost immediately, the buzzards arrive by the dozens—but this isn’t the behavior of any buzzards I know, and so I’m beginning to think something else is afoot here. The crew is familiar with turkey vultures, but these birds are different—they look to Louis like “funeral umbrellas.” And then: “In a scene that seemed as plausible and as horrifying as Louis’s worst dreams, the birds descended on Gideon and hooked the prongs of their talons into his skin; perhaps a dozen of them lifted him into the sky. Gid’s body shrank into the cloudless expanse.” Gideon. Taken by dark angels. Hmm.

And then the birds come back—hundreds of them. Uh oh. But Theodore, another crewman, says they’re all safe because they’re alive, and the birds are just filthy buzzards. You sure about that, Theodore?
I feel sorry for Louis, though.

July 26, 2010: “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” by Karen Russell

4 comments:

Tim said...

I agree that Louis is an interesting character, but found the story lacking on the whole.

In terms of being a short story, it takes too long before the narrative starts moving.

Review of The Dredgeman's Revelation on Digital Dunes.

F. Escobar said...

I liked the main character, as Clifford did. And I agree with Tim: it took too long to start moving. Besides, when it does move, it drags along.

There is something remarkable about the narrator, and it’s an unashamed omniscience. This I find nice and healthy. Omniscience is far underused in today’s fiction. We poke into all sorts of minds in this story, and the narrator even talks to us at least once (“Picture instead a slave driver […]”).

With great information comes great responsibility, though, and I think some of the problems with pacing in the story involve passages bulged up by the overly zealous narrator. Sometimes, it’s a minor slip, but a starkly uninteresting one: “Curiously modest, he refused to strip before diving.” Curiously modest? And take this overwrought description: “The doctor lit a Turkish cigarette and let out a little cry, a sadness that registered in decibels somewhere between a gambler’s sigh and the poor woman’s grief-mad wailing at the end of her labor”. Was that necessary? Revealing? Luscious? I would say none of those.

So I take issue with that. Sometimes, though, the language does turn luscious. I liked this description of Louis’s voyage to Florida: “Forests dispersed into beaches and regrouped again in mountain passes.” And the section in which three weeks are described, one after another (“Week 1: They couldn’t sleep […]”), was particularly well textured.

The ending struck me as unduly abrupt, almost foreign to the story. (Maybe the author was rushed to meet a deadline at The New Yorker.) Nevertheless, I go with Cliff’s hunch that something more is going on with those vultures. The story’s title does mention “Revelation,” and if you make that plural, you’ll end up with a book associated with beastly apocalypses like the one that engulfs the boat at the end. Maybe. There’s also an allusion to Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” that may add something to the ending.

In fact, two dashes of literariness (as Pynchon would call it) in the story struck me as clumsy and not believable: the sailor’s mention of Narcissus and Louis’s recollection of “the bright-eyed mariner” seemed to come from the author’s interest in adding allusions, rather than from the characters themselves. Neither of them seemed believable. When did Louis, who worked the fields since 2:30 A.M. and was brutalized by his adoptive father to the point that he longed to remain forever on the dredge, find time for the “poetry recitation” in which he memorized that line?

That brings me to a final point (please excuse me, Clifford, if these comments are too long and boring). We all know that Louis didn’t want the trip to end. In fact, he even semiconsciously thought of sabotaging the operation: “Sometimes, at night, Louis thought in a dreamy way about sabotaging the dredge—plucking parts like flowers from the engine room. It was only a thought, and a crazy one, but the closer they got to the Gulf the sicker he felt.” Did anybody else harbor a suspicion that Louis may have provoked the explosion in the engine room? Maybe the apocalyptic burst of the end is some sort of punishment for that?

Splash said...

Gosh, I just loved her use of language so much, the incredible descriptions - it's my favourite writing out of the latest stories - that I could forgive the startling end.

Alexander said...

I thought the story was perfect, and I'm still half-mesmerized by the eerie beauty of it. The mention that Louis was too modest to remove his pants when working in the water was a wonderful detail. I want to read an entire novel centered on his life!