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Book Review : Near-Swamping by Creatures From the Florida Everglades

November 20, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Crocodile Blood by George Mandel (Arbor House: $17.95)

George Mandel's strenuous parable about the encroachment of primal evil into our civilized ways is divided into 20 collages. The narrator, who steps in a little less than halfway through to become a participant, is a painter whose work consists of gluing together a miscellany of artifacts and newspaper clippings to produce giant constructions.

"Collage" describes his work, then, and it also describes the novel's increasingly broken-up and disjointed style. "Crocodile Blood" is gaudy and nightmarish, suiting the vision of modern life that Mandel is trying to convey. But as it goes along, it takes on the indiscipline, the confusion and above all the incommunicability of a nightmare. As readers, we are the book's roommate, merely. We know that an awful lot of dismay is going on in the next bed, and pretty well figure out why; but our only real participation is the twitches and shrieks.

In the book's first and most interesting part, an evil act takes place; a violation of the Indian swamp dwellers in the Florida Everglades by the white developers on the coast. It consists of the savage rape of Majosie, a Seminole, by five redneck youths.

Collusion, Profiteering

It is not a simple atrocity, though; it has roots and consequences. When Majosie and Junn, a black part-Indian who helps her, press charges, this shakes a whole network of collusion and profiteering. The youths belong to a strong-arm force used by Finneran, a rich and powerful developer who is the region's boss, a scoundrel and a visionary.

Finneran's people--defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges--get the charges dismissed, and Majosie and Junn return to the swamp to brood upon revenge.

Mandel sets this out in a baroque and ornate chiaroscuro that some reviewers of previous books have found Faulknerian. There is a density of drama in the characters, and a ferocious extremity in their actions. There is a mythic tone that can screw up our interest even as it continually threatens to swamp our belief.

The severest near-swamping involves the insistence by both Majosie and her assailants that after the attack, a giant crocodile appeared, raped her and then carried her to safety. Later, at the end of the first part, a repentant attacker who goes back to the swamp, reports that she has given birth to six crocodile-like hominoids.

If I speak of a near-swamping, it is because up to this point the book's convoluted style has retained considerable energy. Mandel's picture of the new class--the developers, professionals and high-livers, their greed and cultural pretentions intertwined--is strengthened by the scheming and violence that fester underneath. The symbolism of the crocodile rape is not without its point.

Even after this first part, in fact, the symbolism remains logical enough. Civilization has raped the swamp. Modern men are, if you like, crocodiles to each other. Years later--by this time, Gabe Kogen, the painter, has taken over the narration--it is entirely appropriate that gangs of morally deformed swamp creatures should invade the agreeable community that Finneran has built. Known as "bayhamas," they kill, rape and rob without compunction. And the reaction of the townspeople becomes equally violent; the crocodile blood of the title has prevailed.

Fractured Modern Conscience

But if Mandel keeps reasonably close to his symbols, his novel disintegrates altogether. Kogen is the fractured modern conscience, literally. Shot in the head in World War II, he undergoes spells of hallucination, near-epileptic attacks, and a small stroke.

Poor qualifications to narrate what becomes a wilder and wilder story. He takes lucrative commissions from the ruling class--with Finneran at its head--and makes love to its wives and daughters. He goes on missions to investigate what is happening in the swamp. He witnesses a crocodile-like creature raping a neighboring family.

What is actually happening and what he thinks is happening become increasingly confused. And this leaves the reader with little way of responding to the descriptions of street massacres, of a vigilante society gone wild, and finally, of the society's leaders stalking and assassinating each other.

The events of the book's second half become less real the more strenuous they get. They are like the blaring of a public-address system gone haywire. More seriously, the characters lose all identity. They are swirling, hyperactive shadows.

By the end, Mandel's 420 overburdened pages have made a point no different and much more ponderous than that made by another group of swamp residents three decades ago. As Pogo and his Okefenokee friends put it: "We have met the enemy and they is us."

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