Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Not Puppy Love

By Ben Winters

JANUARY 31, 2000: 

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf), $25, 341 pages

Reading Carl Hiaasen's latest Florid-set comic thriller, "Sick Puppy," is like turning in to today's Top 40 radio to hear songs like "Little Black Backpack" and "What's My Age Again?"--all those knowingly, smirkingly depthless jingles that are as catchy as they are superficial.

"Sick Puppy" is driven first by its message (a proud and decent one, against the cash-greased and undemocratic state of the American politic process) and secondarily by its plot - the convoluted, occasionally believable tale of Twilly Spree, the fanatical environmentalist who singles out a particularly slimy lobbyist named Palmer Stoat for retribution.

Twilly Spree? Palmer Stoat? And don't forget Nils Fishback and the evil Mr. Gash, all denizens of Hiaasen's sly little world, where a thin, sugary layer of cleverness coats everything, somehow never quite providing the right flavor. Is it funny that Stoat has an unfortunate habit of misquoting popular song lyrics? Not really. Does Gash the hitman gain an extra level of grim wickedness by Hiaasen assigning him a hobby of collecting 911 call tapes? Not particularly. Even more troubling, do we believe for a second that Desie, Stoat's wife, would decide to "come along" with the handsome lunatic who is stalking her husband? Of course not.

Characters defined solely by their schtick are very useful when driving a plot--and Hiaasen's plot is as constantly-rolling, twist 'n' turn-filled an exercise as any John Irving opus or "Seinfeld" episode--but very difficult to care about, to properly love or hate.

Which isn't to say that Hiaasen does not, on occasion, hit his mark. His portrayals of scumbags and nutbars, informed by both a Dickensian, to-every-character-his-schtick principal and a doggedly visual, Hollywood aesthetic, can be fun: The governor-turned-forest hermit with the showercap and long braided beard, the villainous thug in the gray houndstooth suit and zippered leather boots. If only these characters were expanded from sketches to people.

The climactic scene, which will thrill those fiction students who've been taught to diagram things out, brings all the elements miraculously together. As in "Animal House" or "Dragnet," an epilogue provides us with a paragraph's worth of future fortunes for each character: In a novel as pat as this one, it should not surprise us that all get their just desserts.

A screed against lobbying and in favor of the environment is always welcome, but better Hiaasen should write a well-crafted letter to the editor than a novel that rings as false, and falls as flat, as this one.

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