SICK PUPPY

By Carl Hiaasen

Knopf. 241 pp. $25

It's no mere coincidence that when the quixotic protagonist of Carl Hiaasen's eighth novel asks a friend to bring him something to read, he says, "Anything by John D. MacDonald would be terrific." MacDonald, who died a few years ago after a long, productive and exemplary career, was the first novelist to use the crime genre as a vehicle for expressing outrage about the despoliation of Florida's environment by real-estate developers and their handmaidens, politicians and lobbyists. Hiaasen himself works the same vein, and there can be no doubt that the request for a book by the master is a wry tribute to him, one made all the more pointed when the book turns out to be the masterly Travis McGee novel The Dreadful Lemon Sky.

But if Hiaasen writes in MacDonald's tradition, it's more the MacDonald of Condominium -- sprawling, ambitious -- than the MacDonald of the leaner, tighter McGee novels. Florida has gotten a whole lot bigger since MacDonald started writing about it a half-century ago, and it seems to require bigger books now than most of those written by him or his contemporary Charles Willeford. The mantle has fallen upon Hiaasen, and he has assumed it with grace and skill.

He is not a literary writer and so far has not, to the best of my knowledge, claimed to be one. He is a journalist -- a columnist for the Miami Herald -- who writes books on the side. They have the speed and crackle of professional journalism, and the lack of pretension that once was common in the business but today, alas, is rather harder to find. They are extensions of Hiaasen's journalism, the central business of which is the identification and condemnation of any and all offenders against Florida's natural and human environments.

Twilly Spree, the aforementioned protagonist of Sick Puppy, carries Hiaasen's preoccupations to the point of obsession if not beyond. Twenty-six years old, he is the heir to a small fortune made, to his everlasting shame and disgust, in the real-estate game by his father, who never saw a piece of shoreline he didn't want to build a high-rise on. Twilly is "an unemployed . . . college dropout with a brief but spectacular history of psychological problems," all arising from an anger that boils "right on the surface, like a stove, where I can see it and feel it and taste the heat."

As the novel opens Twilly's anger is directed at Palmer Stoat, "the well-known lobbyist, problem fixer and deal broker," a compulsive litterbug who "was either unfathomably arrogant or unfathomably dim, and in either case was in need of special instruction," which Twilly aims to give him. He tracks Stoat's litter trail to a restaurant parking lot, where he dumps a load of garbage on a BMW that turns out to be not Stoat's but his wife's. When this produces no discernible reaction, Twilly deposits a colony of dung beetles in Stoat's Range Rover, which produces an immediate reaction -- Stoat "yelped and slapped at his thighs and burst from the vehicle as if shot from a cannon" -- but the moron still continues to drop everything he touches onto whatever surface, paved or otherwise, is under him.

Drastic action clearly is needed, all the more so when Twilly learns that Stoat is the point man for a developer named Robert Clapley, who aims to transform a place called Toad Island into Shearwater Island: "A planned seaside community. Beach and boardwalks between the condominium towers. Public parks, kayak tours and a nature trail. Two championship golf courses. A clay pigeon shooting range. A yacht harbor, airstrip and heliport." In this venture Clapley has the full cooperation of Dick Artemus, the governor, whose successful campaign had been greased in no small measure by Clapley's dollars. That is strictly business as usual, as Stoat knows full well:

"To meet someone with genuine political ideals was a rarity in Stoat's line of work; as a lobbyist he had long ago concluded there was no difference in how Democrats and Republicans conducted the business of government. The game stayed the same: It was always about favors and friends, and who controlled the dough. Party labels were merely a way to keep track of the teams; issues were mostly smoke and vaudeville. Nobody believed in anything except hanging on to power, whatever it took. So, at election time, Palmer Stoat always advised his clients to hedge generously by donating large sums to all sides. The strategy was as immensely pragmatic as it was cynical. Stoat himself was registered independent, but he hadn't stepped inside a voting booth in 14 years. He couldn't take the concept seriously; he knew too much."

To be sure, that paragraph could be written about almost any state, and certainly about the Nation's Capital, but it's carried to a fine art in Florida, which is "urbanizing itself faster than any other place on the planet, faster than any other place in the history of man," to the extent that "each day 450 acres of wild forest disappeared beneath bulldozers." Robert Clapley and Palmer Stoat and Dick Artemus all mean to cash in on the boom, the environment be damned, and Twilly Spree is hell-bent on stopping them.

In this effort he soon gains an unlikely ally: Desie Stoat, wife of Palmer Stoat, 32 years old, beautiful and restless, afraid that "the comfortable life" she married into isn't enough but "scared to think of starting over." Against all her intentions and expectations, she is drawn to Twilly: "She understood him no better than she understood herself, but she felt unaccountably comfortable at his side. Sometimes she caught him glancing sideways at her -- it was a look no other man had ever given her, a combination of naked desire, penetrating curiosity and also sadness." She knows that Twilly "has no ambition beyond wreaking havoc, and no imaginable future that doesn't include felony prison time," but she can't resist him.

With these central elements of the plot in place, Hiaasen is off and running. Almost nothing escapes his eye, and the more ludicrous it is, the more he delights in it. Among the phenomena upon which he dwells with evident pleasure are "sportsmen" (Stoat being a prime example) who pay to kill "wild" animals in faux African shooting parks; a couple of strapping refugees from behind the fallen Iron Curtain, Katya and Tish, whom Robert Clapley aims to transform, via a "therapeutic breakthrough," into larger-than-life Barbie dolls; a slick political operator named Willie Vasquez-Washington who "calls himself the Rainbow Brother" and claims "to be part Afro-American, part Hispanic, part Haitian, part Chinese, and even part Miccosukee," all of which he employs to full advantage in his ceaseless pursuit of "the essential nutrient of politics," pork; a large, amiable black Labrador, the "sick puppy" of the title, who goes as either Boodle or McGuinn (depending on who's talking) and who goes by "the philosophy that life was too brief for anything but fun and mischief and spontaneous carnality"; and "rhino sex powder," the itch for which causes any number of vexing, if highly amusing, difficulties.

Hiaasen walks a fine line between satire and outrage, as well as another between the conventions of the thriller and the conventions of slapstick, and from time to time he slips onto the wrong side. The cast of characters is a bit too populous for the novel's good, and toward the end matters get so frenetic that credulity is strained well past the snapping point. At times (as in some of the passages quoted above) the book sounds more like a newspaper column, albeit a good one, than a novel. But it is immensely amusing throughout, its pace doesn't sag for a moment, and its heart is absolutely in the right place.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.