Monday, June 16, 2008

Stormy Weather and Skinny Dip by Hiaasen - Review

I far as I’ve been able to determine, there’re only s couple of recurring characters in Carl Hiaasen books, but what characters they are. Skink, the foxily crazy former governor of Florida lives in the Everglades dispensing justice and serving as the most delightful dues ex machine in contemporary crime literature. Skink appears in both Stormy Weather and Skinny Dip, but I’ll leave it to the reader to discover where, why, and how. The two books share some common elements that contribute to many other Hiaasen novels:

1. A young and beautiful woman,

2. An older, somewhat jaded and lost man who saves himself in rescuing the girl.

3. A cast of gooney and grotesque villainous or saintly characters.

4. A raging anger at the destruction of Florida’s beauty by developers, crooked politicians, rapacious farmers, and other people of no moral or social conscience.

5. A rip roaring page turner plot

6. Laugh out loud situations that make the reader think about power, honesty, integrity and the state of the world.

While there are plenty of silly scammers, the real bad guys and the genuine target Hiaasen keeps focusing on are developers, builders, farmers, and crooked politicians who destroy the land in order to make obscene amounts of money. Whether they’re breaking building codes or pumping phosphates in the once pristine waters of the Everglades doesn’t matter. They’re blaspheming what was one wild, beautiful, and eternal.

In Stormy Weather, Bonnie and Max Lamb awaken during their honeymoon at Disney World to learn that Hurricane Andrew is bearing down on Homestead, just south of Miami. Max grabs his video camera, hustles Bonnie into the car and drives south to capture the destruction on tape. Max and Bonnie are soon separated as she becomes increasingly disgusted by his behavior. Along the way, readers meet a mafia killer seeking revenge because his mother has been killed in the hurricane, a crooked building inspector and the developer who bribed him. We also meet Augustine, the seemingly lost and shiftless collector and juggler of human heads, who helps Bonnie gain a new perspective on life.

On the opening page of Skinny Dip, Marine biologist Dr. Charles Perrone nonchalantly throws his wife off a cruise ship in the middle of the Gulf Stream. The wife, Joey, once a college swimmer, manages to re-orient herself in the air and knife into the water, unharmed. She begins swimming toward shore and is eventually rescued by Mick Shanahan who lives alone on a small island off the coast of Miami. Together, they hatch a plot to wreak revenge on Chaz Perrone, a worthless human being whose brain dangles between his legs. Chaz has been falsifying data about phosphate pollution from Red Hammernut’s farms in the Everglades in order to save Red the millions of dollars it would cost to stop the pollution. Again, the collection of characters brightens the landscape and keeps the action moving.

Hiaasen, a columnist for the Miami Herald, focuses his column on these same targets. He’s also written a longer non-fiction work about the effects of Disney on the state. Recently, he has published a golf memoir called The Downhill Lie, which, like many such books, examines the complex relationship often existing between the game and the father-son relationship. His greatest claim to fame, however, remains his novels. These are filled with mordant humor, satire, and, not too deeply hidden, passion for his home state and its natural wonders. A question arising from all this has to do with whether his columns or his novels contain more power to move the reader to action. Perhaps this is an unfair question, because his Florida readers are better situated to respond with votes or other actions to affect the outcomes. Nevertheless, my recent travels in Florida have been significantly informed by his views. My appreciation and understanding for what I’ve seen have grown. I doubt my political behavior has been affected.

In the end, a Hiaasen novel does what a good book should. It entertains and enlightens. Because his books are so entertaining, the enlightenment comes with little pain and less defensiveness. He doesn’t come across as hectoring or looking down on his readers. Even though something of a formula has emerged (the winsome damsel, the older and somewhat estranged man, the magical help from outside) the stories remain fresh and lively, always a good read. Carl Hiaasen’s novels are to be enjoyed and treasured. I recommend they not be read successively, because his style requires a little rest between exposures not to become overwhelming. The books are not serial and don’t need to be read in sequence, nor are they so topical as to become obsolete, at least in the short term of a decade or two. Read, enjoy, learn.

Hiaasen’s books are available on-line or from you local chain or independent book seller.