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Carl Hiaasen reports from 'Paradise'

Con artists and land developers

Carl Hiaasen  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- A city official known as "Mayor Loco." A con artist who performs plastic surgery on several patients before being unmasked. An extortionist who threatens housepets. A commissioner who sees pornography in a photo of vegetables.

Sound like characters from a Carl Hiaasen novel?

Try characters from Carl Hiaasen's real life.

These people -- and assorted real estate developers, convicted felons, government officials, Bible thumpers, and theme-park executives, some of whom are difficult to tell apart from the others -- make up the cast of characters in "Paradise Screwed" (Putnam), a collection of Hiaasen's Miami Herald columns. Southern California may have a reputation as the flake capital of the United States, but based on Hiaasen's work, the swampy flatlands of Florida seems to have oozed past the Golden State when it comes to offering a slough of greed, corruption, chicanery, and flat-out bizarre behavior.

What is it about a state that attracts such a motley crew?

"I can't explain it," the 48-year-old author of "Sick Puppy" and "Strip Tease" says in a phone interview from his home in the Florida Keys. "I think in the old days, the nexus of weirdness ran through Southern California, and to a degree New York City. I think it's changed so that every bizarre story in the country now has a Florida connection. I don't know why, except it must be some inversion of magnetic poles or something. It's very, very strange."

A voice of 'reasonable and proper disgust'

That strangeness has been good for Hiaasen. He seldom has to work hard to come up with ideas for columns -- or novels, for that matter. Granted, there are those rare mornings when there are no indictments, no dead voters, and south Florida looks like "a normal place."

Most of the time, though, goofy events abound, and "It's like shooting fish in a barrel."

A voice of 'reasonable and proper disgust'

His take on the Sunshine State: "All paths of slime and disreputability seem to lead here."

Hiaasen says the line with an overlay of jokiness, but underneath, he's dead serious. A Florida native, he's genuinely upset about the depletion and abuse of the state's natural resources, and has taken on Disney -- a bete noire he blames for a host of ills -- in both his columns and a book-length essay, "Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World."

Hiaasen makes no apologies for his aggressive tone.

"By and large, (the topics are) something that has now gotten the attention of the general media down here, but nobody is coming out and saying the obvious thing -- (like) 'the guy's a crook,'" he says. "That's where I come in. You have to have some voice of reasonable and proper disgust over these things. ... That's the great thing about having your own column. You can be irreverent when everyone else is trying to be Peter Jennings."

He credits luminaries such as Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and Murray Kempton as influences. From them, he learned not to be afraid and to say exactly what he's thinking, Hiaasen says.

"When you're given a newspaper column, you're not being paid to sit on a fence and scratch your chin and say 'On the one hand this' and 'On the other hand that,'" he says. "You're getting paid for your opinion. So don't be a candy-ass about it: What do you think?"

An 'honor and privilege'

Hiaasen still writes two columns a week for the Herald. The rest of the time, he's working on a book, he says.

He had help going through the 15 years' worth that make up "Paradise Screwed." A friend at the University of Florida, Diane Stevenson -- she'd edited a previous collection of Hiaasen's work -- did the initial culling, and then the two of them selected the 200 or so pieces for the book.

Re-reading the columns was enlightening, he says.

"Some of the lowlifes (I wrote about) are still skulking around. They're just as sleazy as I predicted," Hiaasen says, noting that he once worried that he was too harsh on some people. No longer. "I should have drop-kicked some of these people another 10 yards."

In some cases, he gets that chance in his novels. His new one, "Basket Case," is due in January, and this time he takes on the hand that feeds him -- corporate media. "I won't be making any friends in the corporate suites," he says.

By now, Hiaasen could easily retire from newspapers and write his novels. Most of his works have been bestsellers, and Hollywood has snapped up a couple, too.

Sure, Hiaasen says, he's pondered giving up the life of an ink-stained wretch, but that's all.

"Good satire comes from anger. It comes from a sense of injustice, that there are wrongs in the world that need to be fixed," he says. "And what better place to get that well of venom and outrage boiling than a newsroom, because you're on the front lines. ... (I) have this tremendous honor and privilege and this forum of writing a column, and I'm pretty lucky because I work for a darn good newspaper, and by and large they leave me alone.

"When that day comes (that it's time to go), I'll be happy to step aside," he adds. "But right now, I still get off a good one now and then, and there's so much that needs to be written about."


• Penguin Putnam

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