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The Boston Phoenix Carl Hiaasen

"Lucky You"

By Matthew DeBord

LUCKY YOU, by Carl Hiaasen. Alfred A. Knopf, 353 pages, $24.

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  At this point, it's clear that Carl Hiaasen ranks with oranges and the Magic Kingdom among Florida's state treasures. Since his debut more than a decade ago with Tourist Season, through the more recent Strip Tease and Stormy Weather, the Miami Herald reporter-cum-satirist has amassed a cult of devoted readers that has pushed his print runs into the low six figures. With his latest, Hiaasen resists the facile temptations of farce, instead exacting his patented brand of furiously inventive comedy in a classic caper involving lottery winners, a cynical journalist, white supremacists, Mob lackeys, a philandering jurist, an entire town of born-again hucksters, and an ATF agent not beyond some freelance favors.

When JoLayne Lucks -- a black woman with a taste both for flamboyant nail polish and environmentalism -- plays, for the umpteenth time, the Florida lottery (jackpot: $28 million), she scarcely expects to hit it big enough to save a slice of undeveloped wilderness slated for a mall. Fortune does smile on Lucks (LUCKS BE A LADY! is the headline one particularly dimwitted newspaper editor cooks up), but it also shines on Bodean "Bode" Gazzer and Onus "Chub" Gillespie, a pair of spectacularly incompetent local hillbillies whose yokel enthusiasms tend toward check-kiting, automatic weapons, and, for Bode, fantasies of a "disciplined and well-regulated" militia, as stipulated in the Second Amendment to the "motherfuckin' Constitution."

To that end, Bode and Chub together decide that $14 million, dispensed by the state in $700,000 chunks, just won't properly endow the "White Rebel Brotherhood" (later the "White Clarion Aryans") to defend the pale race against a "New World Tribunal, armed by foreign-speaking NATO troops." In one of the novel's few truly unsavory scenes, they track JoLayne down, beat her up, murder one of her many pet turtles, and steal her winning ticket.

JoLayne is resourceful enough to take care of herself, but in order for the story to take on the tone of a white-trash It Happened One Night, she needs to hook up with Tom Krome, a hard-bitten news reporter trapped in a feature-writing job, covering fluff at the behest of a dunderheaded editor who assigns him to find JoLayne in the "prototypical tourist-grubbing truck stop" of Grange, where she lives and where the caper kicks off. Hiaasen spares no citizen of this off-ramp mecca -- not the caretaker of a fiberglass Madonna that "weeps" Charlie perfume, nor Dominick Amador, a local who has drilled a pair of stigmata in his own hands; nor the woman who claims to have seen the image of Christ in a brake-fluid road stain.

And that's just the tip of Hiaasen's iceberg: frolic and tomfoolery alternate with deadeye sharpshooting at all manner of social hypocrisy, graft, greed, and evil so banal it deserves pity. Nary a page passes without at least a flash of exceptional cleverness, nimble symmetry, or hydrochloric commentary. Hiaasen levels the gunsight of his vituperative humor with little regard for his targets' cultural laurels. All of South Florida, it would seem, merits ridicule, especially the judicial system (hopelessly corrupt), land developers (hungry for a buck at the expense of the state's fragile ecology), and the entirely American breed of unwashed, prefabricated right-wingers represented by Bode and Chub, who blaze an easy-to-follow trail using JoLayne's stolen Visa card.

The inevitable temptation for a writer with Hiaasen's breadth of focus would be to build a soapbox and decry each of the societal ills his more unpleasant characters symbolize. He's far too slick, however, to waste time on political jeremiads when there's madcap comedy to deliver. Still, he does understand the indispensable role of pathos: though his zanies, losers, and reluctant white knights may not move according to a complex inner logic (most are driven by naked appetites for personal gain), they do possess enormous appeal -- the good ones, anyway. Few will lament the grim fates that befall Bode and Chub after the novel's entire cast decamps to an uninhabited island in the Florida Keys.

Leaving no narrative knot untied, Hiaasen succeeds in consummating Tom and JoLayne's salt-and-pepper romance with aplomb -- but not before he maneuvers everyone through a maze of absurd and at times violent (though never truly menacing) confrontations, including the thwarted rape of a kidnapped waitress.

It's preposterously difficult to ensure the frenzied pace a caper requires while maintaining enough detachment to execute successful satire. Hiaasen masters both, proving that his peculiar genius as a writer lies in his grasp of the delicate balance, otherwise known as timing, that comedy demands. This certainly isn't fiction to shelve alongside Twain and Beckett, but only a sour personality, bleak of mood -- a laugh miser -- could resist the manifold charms of Hiaasen's romp through the Rabelaisian excess of America's most hilariously corrupt paradise.

Matthew DeBord has written for the New Yorker, FEED, and Artforum.

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