Carl Hiaasen and the state of weirdness
'Skinny Dip' latest in author's Florida chronicles
By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A phony marine biologist with incurable priapism. A cop whose pet pythons have an appetite for his neighbor's Pomeranians. A hirsute thug who shaves checkerboard patterns into his back to accommodate his addiction to fentanyl patches.
Welcome to Carl Hiaasen's Florida.
For 20 years, through 10 novels and his wickedly pointed column in the Miami Herald, the 51-year-old Hiaasen has been an outspoken voice of sanity in an insane state.
Florida, which by University of Florida estimates has quintupled its population since the 1960s, has led the nation in banner-headline weirdness.
Unchecked avarice leads to epidemic political corruption. Lobbyists (read: bagmen for special interest groups) make campaign "contributions" or outright bribes in order to facilitate massive development of real estate projects, with catastrophic consequences for the environment. And there's endemic drug violence, which continues to spiral beyond the control of law enforcement.
Not to mention the last presidential election.
All of which make Florida a good place to be a writer, said Hiaasen by phone when CNN.com caught up with him mid-tour for his latest novel, "Skinny Dip" (Knopf).
"You don't have to wait too long for something to happen down there that gives you an idea," he said. "It's not an accident that so many writers have moved to Florida and are setting novels there. Writers gravitate to where the action is."
'Things do start to come apart'
Hiaasen (a Broward County native) has long railed in print against the evils befalling his home state, which sometimes assume such bizarre dimensions as to be otherworldly. Reading twin collections of Hiaasen's column, titled "Kick Ass" and "Paradise Screwed" (Berkeley), it's easy to see where he gets the material for his novels.
As Hiaasen put it: "I wait for the headlines to inspire me."
What is it about Florida that attracts such lunacy?
"I don't honestly know," he said. "It's hard for me to understand on some days, but it's a fact. It's always been a haven for all kinds of characters, good and bad. You have the dreamers who go there in search of something and then you have the predators that follow them.
"When you think that a place as large as Florida has still filled up so fast, and so densely, going from a rural to an urban state in one generation," he continued, "what happens is that things do start to come apart at the seams, including the social and political fabric. ... You have this stampede of humanity into the state and no effort to control it or curb growth in any fashion, and you're going to have this extreme result, which manifests itself in the crime and the weirdness and corruption which finds its way into the novels."
"Skinny Dip" takes its name from the opening scene, in which Chaz Perrone, a phony marine biologist doctoring water pollution reports for a wealthy farmer named Red Hammernut, throws his wife Joey off a cruise ship for fear she's discovered his scam. Joey, who survives thanks to diving training from her school days, also stands to inherit millions.
Her rescue by a reclusive ex-soldier and former state investigator named Mick Stranahan (who first appeared in 1989 in Hiaasen's novel "Skin Tight") prompts an investigation into corrupt agricultural interests undermining the attempted restoration of Everglades National Park.
A word about formula: Hiaasen hasn't changed his in 20 years, and his enormous popularity both in and outside of Florida attest to its efficacy. Each novel opens like a newspaper article (once a newsman, always a newsman), and the reader is quickly introduced to a group of characters with unforgettable names and idiosyncrasies (the aforementioned fentanyl addict, Tool, has a garden full of stolen highway fatality markers).
"I have this pet peeve which is when I read a novel I don't want to hit page 200 and have to go back to the beginning to figure out which character is which," Hiaasen explained. "I want the name to stick when you first see the character come on stage so you never forget them. ... A guy like Tool is not someone you're going to forget once you've read his description.
"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."
Beauty and corruption
Also part of the formula is the equipping of each character with a string of lousy relationship choices, a Hiaasen standard, "because the world is full of people who make lousy relationship decisions. The divorce rate in this country wouldn't be what it is today if you had people making wise decisions. It's a tough world in which to be a successful couple."
The scam of "Skinny Dip," like any other Hiaasen book, is based on fact. Red Hammernut uses Chaz Perrone to show regulators that the fertilizer runoff from his farms is not harmful (when in fact it's poisoning the Everglades), allowing him to reap the profits on his farms (worked by migrants terrorized by thugs like Tool).
"The central part of the state is more remote and less scenic, and there's a huge agricultural belt that stretches from the south of Lake Okeechobee to the border of Everglades National Park, where the restoration effort is being concentrated," Hiaasen explained. "Obviously the movement to save the Everglades runs up against agricultural concerns."
Generous campaign contributions and bribes ensure Red has political protection. "The thing that's always surprised me about Florida is how cheaply and shabbily the politicians can be bought down there," Hiassen said. "All it takes is minimal campaign support, or, in the case of those who actually take bribes, it sure doesn't take much to buy them."
For all the potent humor in Hiaasen's books, there is an underlying sad truth: Florida will never recover from its pillaging by unchecked greed, the author believes. "It's not getting any better," he said flatly. "Florida's just getting weirder by the day. You can't turn back that tide once it's started."
One hopes that, if nothing else, Hiaasen will continue to craftily chronicle the material he has.