By Carl Hiaasen
What most people remember about the 1996 movie Strip Tease is that Demi Moore was reportedly paid four million dollars to dance with her top off. What is forgotten is all the confusion over how the movie was to be marketed. Several different advertisement strategies were attempted, none of which had any great success. Was it a drama about a single mother’s fight to raise her kid? Or a comedy with some jarringly nasty parts?
The producers should have foreseen questions like these. The script was based on a novel by Carl Hiaasen, a Florida newspaper columnist whose novels have never been comfortably aligned with any one type of response. While seemingly made for the big screen, his work perversely resists adaptation.
Sick Puppy is Hiaasen’s eighth novel, and if you’ve read any of the previous seven then you know what to expect. The action is again set in Florida, a place that Hiaasen delights in exposing as a sinkhole of political corruption, media-bred violence, redneck ignorance and affluent vice. The main character is Twilly Spree, a nutty ecoterrorist trying to halt the commercial development of an Edenic Gulf island. His plan is to dognap the black Labrador retriever belonging to one of Florida’s slimiest lobbyists and blackmail him into stopping the project.
No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the plot is really only there to give Hiaasen a chance to throw a bunch of “tabloid freak show” people together and see what happens.
The bad guy is a drug lord turned real estate developer who is having a pair of Eastern European girls surgically transformed into human Barbie dolls because of his fetish for the famous toys. (When asked if the girls are twins he responds: “No, but they will be soon.”) Meanwhile, the hit man who works for him listens to tapes of The World’s Most Bloodcurdling Emergency Calls, and likes to have group sex while swinging in a reptile-skin trapeze. Opposing these creatures of darkness is a friendly, flatulent black Lab and a one-eyed ex-Governor of Florida named Skink who walks around in a kilt and lives off roadkill.
Well, you get the point.
Yes, Sick Puppy is funny. I think I laughed out loud three times, and had a smile on my face for most of the rest. But as always with Hiaasen there are a lot of places where the humour is unsettling. What makes Hiaasen different from other writers of violent black humour is the real sadism that pervades his work. His last novel, for example, had a particularly violent rape that was played straight for laughs, and in this book he does the same thing. The bad guys don’t just die, they die several times over, with lots of attention given to their experience of pain. Scenes involving torture abound. One gets the sense of a numb sensibility, the product of too many action films.
It is, as all of the characters seem to agree, a “sick world.” It’s obvious that Hiaasen feels this sickness, and has funneled his anger into his wild tales of outrage and vengeance. Underlying it all is an environmental message (nature always bites back) and a call to political action. Sick Puppy is an uneven, often tone-deaf work, but it makes up for these flaws with its humour, power of observation, and fiercely moral concern.
Review first published March 18, 2000.