Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Stay Outta FL

Carl Hiaasen's seedy developments

By Mark Bazer

JANUARY 31, 2000: 

Sick Puppy, Alfred A. Knopf, 341 pages, $25.
Kick Ass, University Press of Florida, 447 pages, $24.95.

I need to get my grandfather out of South Florida, and I need to get him out fast.

That's the lesson I've taken from the work of Carl Hiaasen, including Sick Puppy, his new farcical crime novel, and especially Kick Ass, a recent collection of metro columns for the Miami Herald. Sick Puppy will probably stay on the bestseller list for weeks, but it's the columns that demonstrate a career of solid reporting and legwork. Each of Hiaasen's novels carries the obligatory warning that all characters are entirely fictitious, but as his columns prove, he's pulling his story ideas out of polluted, not thin, air.

It has been, however, through his eight novels (the most famous, because of the Demi Moore movie, is Striptease) that Hiaasen has exposed the rest of the world to the greed, corruption, environmental destruction, and guns, guns, guns that infest South Florida. Imagine if Robert B. Parker devoted more time in his Spenser novels to satirizing Boston politics . . . or if Mike Barnicle had tried his hand at fiction (cheap shot, I know). Then again, Hiaasen will always have the South Florida advantage. As he writes about his home in one of the columns included in Kick Ass, "No other place can compete with our volume, ferocity, and weirdness of crime."

With little subtlety but plenty of details, Hiaasen gleefully rips selfish, ignorant Florida politicians, common (but uncommonly stupid) criminals, and immoral building contractors. In the acknowledgments to Big Trouble, his first stab at a crime novel, Hiaasen's Herald colleague, Dave Barry, wrote, "I especially want to thank Carl Hiaasen, who is the master of the genre I tried to write in -- the Bunch of South Florida Wackos genre."

Hiaasen litters his latest novel with folks who are slimier than any of the swamplands they've helped destroy. There's crooked real-estate developer Robert Clapley, who has a Barbie fetish, contract killer Mr. Gash, who unwinds to a tape of 911 distress calls set to classical music, and construction supervisor Karl Krimmler, who vowed to destroy all nature after being bitten on the scrotum at age six by a chipmunk.

The fattest cat of all is lobbyist Palmer Stoat, who gets his kicks by hunting endangered animals and snapping Polaroids of his disinterested wife in the sack. The "sick puppy" of the title is Palmer's black lab, who accidentally swallows the eyeballs from some of his master's conquests. But of course the real sick puppies are all of the above. All are also connected to a plan to turn a peaceful island into a luxury resort.

As anyone who has read Hiaasen's fiction knows, the resort will never come to fruition -- the fun is in discovering which courageous misfit will stop them and how. Here it's Twilly Spree, a trust-fund baby who's spent his life trying to get revenge on scoundrels through immature but deliciously appropriate tactics. After he sees Palmer Stoat toss trash out of his car, Twilly makes sure to dump a truckload of refuse into the man's convertible BMW. And when he learns of Palmer's planned resort, he goes to town. With the help of Palmer's wife, Desie (Hiaasen's women are often innocents who shack up with the wrong guy), a former governor now living mysteriously in the woods, lots of stupidity on the parts of the developers, and most crucially the ill pooch, Twilly may become the first protagonist to annoy his way to victory.

It's easy to see that Hiaasen came up with Twilly by looking in the mirror and fantasizing about what might have been had he not taken the slightly more mature route of working in newspapers. In the introduction to Kick Ass, the book's editor, Diane Stevenson, writes that as a child, Hiaasen "and his friends would pull up or relocate surveyor's stakes, feeling that such, futile acts were nevertheless their moral duty."

As successful as he's become as a novelist, Hiaasen clearly feels a moral calling to his role as columnist. He says in big letters on the back cover of Kick Ass, "It's the old school of slash-and-burn metropolitan writing. You just kick ass." Although his columns are short on answers, they're long on criticism; both are presented satirically and sincerely. Yes, it's the humor pieces in Kick Ass that hold up best for the non-Floridian, but go to the Miami Herald's Web site (www.miamiherald.com) to check out his recent work, which includes passionate yet sensible columns about Elián González, the young Cuban in Miami who's now caught up in a depressing political battle. Unlike those of his novels, though, the endings in Hiaasen's columns are rarely upbeat. Here's betting that his boyish cover photo -- which hides a chiseled Mike Royko soul inside -- is hanging on a wanted poster in the Florida Board of Tourism offices. Hell, I know I'm only going down to Florida to take my Gramps back north before Hiaasen uncovers his cheating at bridge.

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