By Carl Hiaasen
“Don’t mess with success” is an entertainment industry maxim. Franchise and brand have real commercial, if not always artistic, value. There’s no point straying from a winning formula. “What people always demand of a popular novelist,” George Orwell once observed, “is that he shall write the same book over and over again.”
Well if it’s what the public wants, Florida author and newspaper columnist Carl Hiaasen isn’t going out of his way to disappoint them. Skinny Dip, his eleventh novel, has all of the elements that his fans have come to expect. First we have the typical strong, resourceful Hiaasen hero Mick Stranahan: ex-cop, loner, dog-lover, recovering from a long string of failed marriages. He is complemented by the sassy, sexy heroine Joey Perrone, who begins the novel being thrown off a cruise ship by her lowlife husband Chaz.
Chaz is an undercover “biostitute” forging water samples for a huge agri-polluter, Red Hammernut, who is using the Everglades as a giant toilet for his farm operations. When Chaz thinks Joey is on to him he ditches her overboard. Unluckily, for him, she survives by clinging to a bale of Jamaican weed and is later rescued by Mick. Together they plan their revenge on Chaz.
Hiaasen’s Florida is the pulp fiction equivalent of professional wrestling: a world of cartoonish physical brutality, tough talk and wisecracks, the virtuous recluse and the plucky babe, heroes and heels. He obviously has the most fun imagining his colorful villains. Skinny Dip features a typical Hiaasen heavy named Tool:
Tool stood six three and weighed 280 pounds and owned a head like a cinder block. His upper body was matted so heavily with hair that he perspired copiously, even in cold weather, and found it uncomfortable to wear a shirt. Nearly a year had passed since Tool had been shot in broad daylight by a poacher who had mistaken him for a bear. No entry wound had been visible, as the slug had uncannily tunneled into the seam of Tool’s formidable buttocks.
The bullet in his backside causes Tool such pain he has to strip powerful skin-patch painkillers from off the backs of sedated patients in local nursing homes. He also has a hobby of collecting the small homemade crosses with floral arrangements that are used as highway-fatality markers and planting them in his backyard.
He seems a completely unredeemable figure, but like every good wrestling scenario there’s always time for the bad-guy to have a dramatic change of heart.
It is as impossible to imagine Hiaasen changing any part of this recipe as it is to expect any variation in his moral compass, where big corporations are always bad, nature is to be loved and respected, the right guy always gets the girl, and good always spectacularly triumphs over evil. His mixture of humour and slapstick violence isn’t for everyone, but if you like bullets that “uncannily” tunnel into “formidable” buttocks then you’ll find Skinny Dip filled with similar fun in the Florida sun.
Review first published September 11, 2004.