Marsh Madness

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at
Friday, November 10, 2006


By Carl Hiaasen

Knopf. 306 pp. $25.95

Just sit back and watch as Carl Hiaasen, with his customary flourish, spins a glittering magic wheel and comes up with another set of characters only he could create. He places them on a curled-up, crablike little squirt of land called Dismal Key, one of the Everglades' Ten Thousand Islands, an endangered national treasure he's been defending for years.

Unfortunately, nobody and no one here is as terminally tweaked as that killer whale in "Native Tongue" who falls prey to murderous urges when he sees the color kelly green, or those house rats who get their tails stuck in India ink and suddenly turn into an endangered species. There probably will never be another book, by Hiaasen or anyone else, as hilarious and wicked as "Native Tongue," and that may be just as well; humans can probably stand just a limited amount of uncontrollable mirth. "Nature Girl" will only make you smile and laugh out loud three or four times. But that's enough.

Dismal Key quickly gets crowded with an elaborate cast of characters, hailing either from Fort Worth or the rural Florida burg of Everglades City, a town with a population of only 500 or so. Out in Fort Worth, a scheming scumbag named Boyd works for an outfit aptly named Relentless Telemarketing, selling worthless life insurance and underwater real estate to innocent suckers usually just sitting down to dinner. Boyd is conducting an affair with the woman in the next cubicle, Eugenie Fonda, who is just bored enough to go along with this pointless endeavor. Meanwhile, back home, Boyd's wife, Lily, has hired Mr. Dealey, an exhausted but very competent private investigator, to catch the errant couple in the act, so she can nail Boyd in a nasty divorce. (Why she would do that is open to question, since she owns a chain of pizza parlors and he's a worthless scumbag, but then again, why not?)

Meanwhile, over in Everglades City, a single mother named Honey is sitting down to dinner in her modest double-wide with Fry, her very nice 12-year-old son, only to receive a phone call from the odious Boyd. When she earnestly chastises him, he loses his temper and calls her a "dried-up old skank." Fighting words indeed, and he's said them to the absolutely wrong person. Always hotblooded and on the side of right, Honey has become even more passionate about the world since giving birth to her boy. She's begun to really see it -- the venality, the greed, the stupidity, the bad manners, all so wonderfully summed up in the state of Florida itself, where exquisite wilderness (as well as the remnants of the Seminole tribe) have been gnawed at and chewed up and bought and sold and bought again by generations of flabby white men in loud golf shirts.

She's been driven beyond the brink of madness thinking of her sweet boy, Fry, growing up in such a world. This madness has led to her divorce from Perry Skinner, Fry's genial, ex-dope-dealing dad, and has also inspired her, most recently, to reply to an amorous advance by her fishmonger-boss, Mr. Piejack, by whamming him with a crab hammer where it hurts the most. (Piejack will suffer yet another indignity, getting his fingers chomped off by irate crustaceans and having those digits sewn back onto the wrong stumps.)

Honey doesn't like being called a dried-up old skank by a telemarketer during the dinner hour, so she tracks him down and gives him a taste of his own medicine, selling him a "free" Florida vacation, which he's dumb enough to jump at, taking his cubicle-girlfriend with him -- with Lily, his wife, sending the tired investigator after them in hot pursuit.

There's another "meanwhile." Sammy Tigertail, a young part-Seminole, is treating a fat white tourist named Wilson to a boat ride in that fabled, inspiring swamp, when a snake wraps itself around Wilson's neck, who then dies of a heart attack. Sammy elects to lie low on Dismal Key for a while, although a luscious coed named Gillian is going to do her darndest to hook up with him sometime soon.

And no, I haven't given away the plot. I haven't even gotten to the plot; these are just the characters. But if you know Hiaasen's work, you know he'll put them all in the service of a very serious theme. His beloved Florida has been raped, burned and pillaged by some of the most scurrilous, conscienceless miscreants on the planet. If he can't stop their crimes and shenanigans, he can at least reveal them for what they are.

So it's off to Dismal Key for all these folks. The women range from honest (that's Honey) to adventurous (that's Gillian) to jaded (that's Eugenie, Boyd's girlfriend.) The men range from honest (Skinner, Honey's husband, and Fry, his sweet son) to tormented (the sorrowful Sammy Tigertail) to depressed (the exhausted private investigator, Dealey) to foul-beyond-words (that would be Boyd, the scumbag telemarketer, and Piejack, the fishmonger with his fingers sewn on all funny).

What can one say? The book is a fantasy, a farce, an island romp. Dismal Key is a paradise that's far from the conventional Eden. It's still a very tough form of nature, with fire ants and crocs and flying snakes and 50 billion ravenous mosquitoes. But the place is so corrupt that even the Seminole (through gambling) have become rich. "We're like the new Arabs," Sammy Tigertail says sourly. "We got casinos and nightclubs and hotels . . . That's how far we've come." There will be one well-deserved death before all this chicanery is ended. Every other character gets exactly the outcome he or she deserves. No, there's no killer whale to commit the perfect crime when he spots a kelly-green T-shirt, no suicide note that contains the immortal words "I sorry," but an ordinary, almost automatic Carl Hiaasen novel is about 10,000 times better than no Hiaasen novel at all.

Sunday in Book World

· Alice Munro bewitches Geraldine Brooks.

· James Mann considers the post-Iraq world.

· Kate Atkinson does one good turn.

· Isabel Allende captures a historic soul.

· Movie stars step off the screen.

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