The Tiger’s Wife of Swamplandia!

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Dec 4, 2011 in Culture, Disjecta Membra, Literature | 0 comments

Cover photo from The Tiger's Wife in Swamplandia!

First of all I want to say that spontaneous combustion of the human corpus is a fact, not a theory. And second: I’ve been drinking a bit this evening in my little workshop, the Atelier™, after learning that my novel, The Doom Prophecy, was not chosen as a Top Ten Book of the Year by the New York Times. For maybe the fifth or sixth consecutive year.

No bitterness. Really. To prove which point, I offer the following notes on one of the books on the list, a wonderful read, by the way, and I don’t say that lightly, having long ago renounced the modern novel (frankly, as far as I’m concerned, literature came to an end with The Good Earth by, I think it was, St. Vincent Benet Ramsey).

The novel I’m urging you to read, like The Doom Prophecy, is a first novel, and like The Doom Prophecy, a first novel with a ‘wild and wacky’ plot and many ‘touching’ characters. It’s titled The Tiger’s Wife in Swamplandia! and was written by Karen ‘Téa’ R. Oberht Hornung. (The R. stands for Russell, the name of her father or of a Jack Terrier her father was fond of; Wikipedia is currently having quite a dustup on the issue. As for Hornung, Téa, as her fans call her, is apparently related to the great Green Bay Packers’ running back, Pat Hornung.)

The Tiger’s Wife in Swamplandia! tells the story of a young medical student who spends her weekends in the swamps of South Florida—an ambiguous term which here means the Everglades—collecting specimens of fungi that might someday lead to still more potent forms of erectile dysfunction drugs, when she comes upon a weird minstrel show from Coney Island called Shoot the Freak, stranded in the swamp and mourning the loss of the grandfatherly owner of the show in an ugly alligator attack, as if there’s any other kind.

Meanwhile the owner’s daughter, a rather tremendous and often bikini clad looker in her own right, has come upon a tiger escaped from another carnival also lost in the swamp after careening off the road on Alligator Alley following a near collision with the touring bus for the band Wang Chung (ask your parents—scratch that, ask your grandparents).

You can guess where the plot is going. The medical student falls for the daughter of the carney show operator. The tiger eventually is called upon to save the pair when they wander into a particularly tall stand of cattails during one of their lurid trysts and are attacked by the same alligator that killed the grandfatherly carney show operator, though how they knew the alligator was the same or that it answered to the name of George was a bit unclear. (The freak in the Shoot the Freak show, by the way, driven mad by the fact that no one had shot at him for days, futilely sacrifices himself to the alligator—I said futilely not feudally.)

There’s a cleansing ritual that’s pretty erotic in my view. But what’s really amazing about this story is that it turns out the tiger actually has a wife, a big bruiser of a gal, half Annie Oakley and half Dame Edith Sitwell, who comes roaring out of the swamps on an air boat, accuses the tiger of infidelity, and reveals herself to be the mother of both the medical student (by a Brazilian exchange student who died long ago in a samba accident) and the carnival show operator’s daughter (by the recently deceased carnival show operator himself—meaning the two protagonists are half sisters, and the tiger is none other than the medical student’s stepfather! Oh the drama, oh the deep down drama!)

Things roar along after that at a spanking pace with sparkling prose. Though I’m not saying The Tiger’s Wife in Swamplandia! is perfect. After all, even The Doom Prophecy has some (very minor) flaws.

Some readers will have trouble with the scene in which the tiger spontaneously combusts in a not entirely credible explosion that takes out the villain of the piece, a former Serbian war criminal who is negotiating to buy the Shoot the Freak franchise.

Not a problem for me. The scene of the tiger’s death left me weeping helplessly—I had grown quite fond of Tyg, as I had taken to calling him. As for the Serbian war criminal, the author’s decision to give him dialogue straight out of a Mickey Rooney movie, say of the Love Finds Andy Hardy period, was a risky move. I don’t think it fully works.

But these are minor quibbles, and I’ve had a bit too much to drink. The Tiger’s Wife in Swamplandia! is a fine book, and I’m feeling a bit sleepy. This always seems to happen when I drink. It didn’t use to. And though 2011 was not my year (as was not 2005 to 2010, more or less inclusive), my spirits lift to know that when the New York Times reveals the Top Ten books of 2012, The Doom Prophecy will be among the winderkins. Wow. I meant to say winners, and I said winderkins. Weird.

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