Monday, November 3, 2014

Hiaasen's Revenge on the Spoilers of Florida

Carl Hiaasen, in Sick Puppy, gives us a Florida that is corrupt, filled with villains both repulsive and ridiculous, heroes both honorable and insane, and dames that are both hot and smarter than the silly men that run the carnival that is Florida politics. He also provides a natural world that is achingly beautiful and racing towards extinction.

This is not your father’s crime story.

The incident that triggers the larger action of the book is not a murder or an attempt at extortion, but rather a case of littering.

Twilly Spree (the names of the characters in all of Hiaasen’s books are great, and in this book includes Palmer Stoat, a lobbyist who lives up to his swinish surname and is the litterer in question) is a very wealthy and whacky young man who can’t abide anyone who defiles the ancient grandeur of the Floridian peninsula, and so follows Stoat when the tick sucking on the body politic hurls a burger wrapper out his car window. This is after the man, who considers himself some kind of Great White Hunter, has murdered a rhino in a “hunt” on a Florida “wilderness” ranch.

Hiaasen is a master at interweaving parallel plot lines that all race towards a crazy conclusion, and we are soon introduced to Robert Clapley, a drug dealer turned developer who carries around Barbie Dolls in his pockets and who has two eastern european girlfriends whom he is having undergo multiple cosmetic surgeries to become more Barbie-like. He is the employer of “Mr. Gash” who is dispatched to kill Twilly, who is doing his eco-terrorist best to scuttle the “development” of Shearwater Island, a boondoggle that is underwritten by Stoat and Dick Artemis, the governor, and Clapley. It’s great fun, but Hiaasen’s aim is dead on and deadly serious when it comes to those who abuse the public trust and the planet itself in the name of what could hardly be called progress.

Throw in an ex-governor who lives off the land in the Everglades and who joins Spree in the role of avenging angel, a kind of love affair between Stoat’s wife Desie and Spree, and a flatulent and wonderfully carefree, spontaneous and dumb Labrador named both Boodle and McGuinn, and you have the ingredients for a wild, whacky, loony and ludicrous romp.

So how does this whole thing fit into the evolution of crime fiction? Well, the corrupt politics of Florida echoes that of the LA and San Francisco of Chandler and Hammett, and Twilly Spree’s crusade against Clapley and Stoat is like that of Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittis against the John Huston character in Chinatown, only much weirder. The love affair between Desie and Spree echoes the relationships Spade and Marlowe had with their dames, but without the misogyny and masochism. Desie Stoat doesn’t want to manipulate anyone, and is far from a femme fatale. In fact, all she originally wants is her dog back (Spree kidnaps the beast, who is happy to go along for the ride, indeed pretty much any ride where he can stick his head out the window), and then she wants Spree, and finally she wants her life back, as compromised as it may have been made by Stoat.

Hiaasen has sympathy for his demented characters—even the more vile of them. After Stoat is killed by a charging Rhino (and how the group of Stooges that are hunting it manages to antagonize the moribund creature into doing so is one of the funniest passages in the entire book) the narrator says: “even as she kept no romantic love for Palmer, she also kept no romantic hate. He was what he was, and if what it was was all rotten she wouldn’t have married him.”
Both Hiaasen’s sympathy and humor are a refreshing development in the evolution of crime fiction. As the genre has developed, as it has matured, it has become respected enough to allow for it to poke a little fun at itself. And Hiaasen is a master of this. Mr. Gash is vain, and has developed a paunch from the decidedly sedentary lifestyle of the hired killer. So he purchases an anaconda skin girdle that he hopes won’t make the ladies laugh (he can’t get it up unless he is hanging from a harness with three women, which may be more of a problem than the need for the girdle).

When the former governor, Clinton Tyree, accosts Dick Artemis, pulls down his pants, and inscribes the word shame on his bare ass with an eagle’s beak, you marvel at just how funny and deadly the satire gets in this book. The governor is a kind of loony tunes King Lear, wandering the Everglades in a kilt, living off road kill, and when he trees a naked Karl Krimmler, a demented builder who is determined to build up Shearwater Island at any cost, I almost wet my pants from a combination of awe and a sense of the tragically absurd. If Tyree himself is a bit absurd, you wonder if craziness is a sane reaction to an insane world.

Krimmler has a real animus towards the natural world, stemming from a childhood incident wherein his brother dropped a chipmunk down his pants: “He was teased and tormented by every sandpiper, every trill of a raccoon, every emboldened bark of a squirrel.” And it is not only Krimmer who gets portrayed as having a psycho-sexual screw loose. Willie Vasquez Washington, another political player trying to get what he can out of the Shearwater Island deal (and who claims ancestry in seven minority groups), mentions, when he hears the other guys talking about all the guns they own, and the sexual staying power afforded them by the powder of pulverized Rhino horn, that white guys worry about their dicks too much.

And even our currently therapeutic culture takes a couple of punches right on the nose, such as when Spree explains to Tyree that he was sent to anger management counseling for blowing up his uncle’s bank, and Tyree proclaims: “Nothing shameful about anger boy. Sometimes it’s the only sane and moral reaction. You don’t take a class to make it go away. You take a drink or a god damned bullet.”

You gotta love the old governor. But my favorite character in the book is not human at all. It’s Boodle/Mcguinn (Spree renames him after he kidnaps him from the Stoats). It is the dog that slips his leash and bites the tail of the rhino, which the politicos have placed under a tree in order to obliterate it with high powered weapons and therefore display their manliness: “McGuinn yearned to chase down this primordial beast and thrash it mercilessly….or at least pester it for a while, until he found something better to do….was there a better way to spend a spring morning, racing free through cool green meadows, snapping at a pair of fleeing hindquarters while slow-footed humans yammered helplessly in protest?”

It’s beautiful in a whacky kind of way, and it makes me marvel at how Hiaasen can make a doofy dog given to farting an exemplar of the spontaneous beauty of nature.

Finally, there is a brand of hardboiled existential justice of the kind meted out by Spade and Marlowe. “Twilly understood finally what sustained the man—an indefatigable faith that nature eventually settles all scores, sets all things straight.” And that nature needs a little help from its friends. Twilly and Spree both vow to give up the crazy crusading at the end, but when they spot a car throwing more trash out the window: “Well, Governor, shall we?”

He thought, oh what the hell.

“Anytime you’re ready, son.”

It sounds like the start of a beautiful friendship.

© 2014 Mike Welch

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