Thursday, February 14, 2008

Carl Hiaasen: Lucky You - Review

Carl Hiaasen’s 1997 novel Lucky You holds up quite well eleven years after it was published. Hiaasen’s satire becomes more pointed and true the longer the reader drifts around Florida, soaking up local color and observing the contrasts between tourist hype and rural, red-neck desperation. Hiaasen has a perfect ear for these differences, particularly where they intersect with often disastrous effects.

The story of Lucky You is less important than the targets Hiaasen takes on. JoLayne Lucks has won a fourteen million dollar lottery which is stolen from her by a couple of stupidly avid skin-head Aryans and their equally stupid, but somehow bumblingly sweet recruit, Shiner. Meanwhile, Tom Krome, intrepid reporter, assigns himself to investigate the story of the beautiful black veterinary worker who has suddenly become rich. Along the way we meet a mafia lawyer, a love-struck federal agent, a group of down at the heels folks seeking to make a living by creating and exploiting phony miracles, forty small turtles, a mafia lawyer, a crooked judge, and a couple of beautiful women. Somehow, all these characters come together to help create a hilarious story which still manages to make sense and to skewer the money lust and phoniness that dominate Florida. See, I told you the plot isn’t what’s important.

People familiar with coastal Florida and the fast-growing and degrading lakes region dominated by Orlando often miss the truth about Florida. The state is huge. Away from the coasts, travelers encounter mile after mile of cattle strewn plains, orange groves losing their value in the face of often ugly development housing, the huge Lake Okeechobee, which once fed the vast Everglades, a moving river which once enriched the vast coastal marshes, a rich ecology for fish, birds, and other wildlife. Sugar farming interests, dominated by U.S. Sugar Corporation have drained much of the Everglades and, with the willing support of Congress, kept the price of domestic sugar high enough to increase farm land at the expense of any sort of rational planning to provide water for the coastal development. It’s these battles – farmers and developers vs. the environment and ecology, religious hucksters, righteous truth seeking newsmen vs. corporate exploiters, good sense vs. craziness that provide Hiaasen with a seemingly endless cast of characters and plots to weave his web.

Hiaasen’s greatest asset is his familiarity with his subject matter and genuine affection for the good ones coupled with disdain and understanding of the less savory characters. His books are great reading at many levels, and they don't wither with age. His characters remain robust, real, earthy, and fun. The problems of Florida are so pervasive the books don't age. I would not recommend reading them one after the other as they wear better when separated. Otherwise, don’t miss Carl Hiaasen.