At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess.
Carl Hiaasen’s books generally begin with this basic scene setting. He gives date, time and situation like a reporter dictating into a tape machine. In Skinny Dip, Joey almost drowns at the hand of her husband, the corrupt wetlands biologist Chaz Perrone. Although his wife doesn’t know it, Chaz suspects that she has found out about his forging of water pollution tests on behalf of an agribusiness tycoon.
Joey survives the fall thanks to her swimming background and the help of island loner Mick Stranahan. Fearing that Chaz, a slick bullshit artist, will easily talk his way out of an attempt-murder charge, Joey uses her inherited wealth and a few close friends to get revenge by less orthodox means.
The journalistic manner is maintained throughout the novel, with even the most bizarre incidents related in formal, dispassionate style. Hiaasen has said that ‘[s]o much of the humor is in the narrative tone.‘ Look at this couple of scenes featuring Chaz and his simian bodyguard, Tool. First, Tool kills and eats an Everglades crocodile:
Not so long ago, the egregious stupidity of plugging a gator would have propelled Chaz into a tirade. Now he wearily accepted such incidents as further proof that life was unraveling beyond his control. In an act of laughable futility, he tried to explain to Tool that shooting a federally protected species was a crime punishable by heavy fines and prison time. Tool chuckled and told him not to worry, the evidence would be gone after supper.
Later, Chaz and Tool run into an altercation when Tool adds to his collection of highway memorial crosses:
With numb resignation Chaz had watched Red Hammernut’s goon uprooting the crosses, until a car screeched to a halt on the shoulder of the highway. Two young men identifying themselves as brothers of the late Randolph Claude Gunther had leapt out of the car and angrily confronted Tool about stealing the markers. The men had brought fresh-cut sunflowers to hang on their brother’s cross, and a volume of Bible verses from which to read. With Tool ignoring their remonstrations, the men had begun preaching loudly at him, invoking Satan and other Biblical scoundrels. Tool had responded by heaving the two brothers into a roadside canal, shredding their book of verses and eating the flowers. Chaz had looked on with the shivers.
Hiaasen is normally praised for his humour and conscience, rarely for his language. Yet he’s one of America’s best prose stylists. He’s the only writer that can break Elmore Leonard’s dialogue attribution rule – he said, she said – and get away with it. He even uses adverbs well.
The Everglades is the engine of Hiaasen’s fiction, and his writing is at its best when he’s describing Florida’s natural beauty. There’s a great scene where Joey, tracking her husband by chopper, looks upon the divide between the wilderness and civilisation, ‘the moral seam of the universe’:
Later, as the pilot angled northward, Joey heard her brother gag in revulsion at the sight of western Broward County, where new subdivisions were erupting like cankers in all directions; thousands upon thousands of cookie-cutter houses, jammed together so tightly that it looked like you could jump from roof to roof for miles on end. Where there were no homes stood office parks, shopping plazas and enormous auto malls – acres and acres of Toyotas and Chryslers, cooking in the sun. Only a slender dirt levee separated the clamorous tide of humanity from the Everglades.
And on the other side of that levee:
Before long, the sprawl gave way to wet saw grass prairies that undulated like flooded wheat in the brisk spring breeze. Except for an occasional airboat, gnat-sized specks on the tan landscape, there was no evidence of human occupation. Stranahan spotted three small deer bounding for the shelter of a tree island, and it occurred to Joey that – except for the occasional garbage-looting raccoon – these were the first truly wild animals that she’d seen since moving to Florida.
Greed and its accompanying corruption, in fact, occupy one side of Hiaasen’s clearly articulated system of right and wrong, while unspoiled wilderness lies on the other… Against this backdrop, events play out in Hiaasen’s novels and columns, the moral landscape making almost tangible certain basic and universal values: we should be loyal to our friends, behave with civility and decency, earn our paychecks honestly, experience shame if we steal, preserve the world for our children, and never surrender — either our belief in these values, or to anyone who would violate them for personal gain. As Hiaasen says, ‘You try to be a good citizen wherever you live. Plant mangroves and don’t piss in the water.’
Hiaasen’s career as a reporter resembles that of one of his brooding mavericks rather than your average contemporary churnalist regurgitating press releases. Animating his writing is a corrosive, creative anger at the destruction of Florida’s wilderness: every year, every generation, another piece of the world sold off to property developers, paved over for fast food restaurants, condo phases, obliterated skyline. This is why Chaz (and other villains) get such a hard time in Hiaasen’s fiction: not only is Chaz slowly destroying the Everglades, but he can’t, or won’t, appreciate it. As his estranged wife says: ‘How could Chaz – a biologist, for God’s sake – not be dazzled?’
Yet throughout the novels there is a sense of nature as a sentient counterforce that is essentially benign. The natural order of the wilderness will reward the good, rescue the innocent and punish the evildoers. Like that of Saki, Hiaasen’s fiction abounds with animals, and many of his signature inventive death scenes involve wildlife. There’s the white supremacist whose femoral artery is skewered by a stingray’s lance; the bullying security guard who is literally raped to death by a dolphin; the connisseur of powdered aphrodisiac who ends up impaled on a rhinoceros horn. The latter scene, with its fake big-game hunt, reminded me of Saki’s short story, ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’; I wonder if Hiaasen has read it?
Likewise, Chaz’s relationship with the testing swamp is difficult; he’s helping the corporate villain Red Hammernut to kill it with fertiliser runoff, and has an almost supernatural dread of the place. When he shoots his girlfriend and leaves her for dead in Loxahatchee, Chaz is ‘pleased with himself for turning the hated, haunted swamp into an accomplice’ – but his attempts to use the wilderness to his own advantage backfire and Chaz is left lost and naked in the Glades himself, under the care of radical ex-governor Clinton Tyree: his fate is unclear, but we know Chaz has not yet finished his journey to the end of the night.
Here Hiaasen’s prose combines the comedy of Chaz’s plight with the majesty of his surroundings:
In a taut and flurried silence the two of them watched Charles Regis Perrone, Ph.D., vanish gradually into the rich copper twilight of the swamp.
Skinny Dip has all the classic aspects of Hiaasen’s previous books. The bad guy starts off in a strong, secure position, but his life grows increasingly problematic and chaotic, his body subject to injury and infection. (Hiaasen: ‘I always try to burden even the villains with some weird predilection they have to cope with. It helps make them memorable, and gives them a human side.’) There is a Samsonite full of money. There is the matchmaking of supporting characters. Yet Hiaasen is tighter and more disciplined, less likely to follow his own tangents. There’s no where-are-they-now epilogue. After so many years, you get the sense that Hiaasen is finally coming to terms with his own talent and embracing his status as – in Tony Hillerman’s words – the Mark Twain of the crime novel.