In part perhaps because it is necessarily topical, in part because it is funny (and funny writing is treated as generically inferior), satire is often undervalued as writing. Discussions of American fiction are far more likely to include third-rate “literary” novelists than first-rate satirists such as Richard Dooling, Christopher Buckley, or Carl Hiaasen. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Dooling, Buckley, and Hiaasen, different as they are from one another, are all three intimately familiar with public life and commerce and the levers of power, with the flow of money and all that it brings in its wake. Hiaasen's journalistic career has included work as a reporter and then for many years as a columnist at the Miami Herald.
In his work for the Herald, Hiaasen has kept an unblinking eye on his native Florida, particularly on its rapacious development. He has put his years of close study to good use in his fiction. Like all the best satirists, Hiaasen combines genuine outrage at human folly with palpable delight in recounting it. Also like all the best satirists, he runs the risk of nihilism. How does a writer who sees through everything manage to affirm the good that gives his satire moral force?
Skinny Dip is Hiaasen's tenth novel, not counting three early books cowritten with Bill Montalbano and a young adult novel, Hoot, which appeared just a few months before Skinny Dip. His previous novel, Basket Case, published in 2002 (featuring a song written for the book by Hiaasen and Warren Zevon and later recorded by Zevon), was his best to date, and there was no falling off withSkinny Dip, which enjoyed excellent reviews as well as a run on best-seller lists.
The novel begins with an attempted murder: A woman in her early thirties, Joey Perrone, is thrown overboard from the deck of a cruise ship by her husband, Chaz. Murder is a serious subject, but from the opening paragraphs there is something ridiculous about this particular crime, and when Joey avoids seemingly certain death by clinging to a floating, burlap-wrapped bale of marijuana that dropped from a smuggler's boat, the whiff of absurdity is unmistakable.
This is Hiaasen's trademark manner. His novels are loaded with unseemly, incongruous, bizarre happenings. (He might well say in reply that the archives of the Herald contain incidents stranger than any fiction.) He aggressively violates routine notions of propriety and verisimilitude. Unlike many absurdist writers, however, who offer simulations of chaos, Hiaasen has created a fictional world in which the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. His understanding of how to distinguish the sheep from the goats differs from traditional criteria, but Hiaasen is a moralist through and through.
One way to distinguish Hiaasen's good guys (and good women) from his villains is by their attitude toward the natural world. When the first sentence of Hiaasen's 1999 novel Sick Puppy reports that “On the morning of April 24, an hour past dawn, a man named Palmer Stoat shot a rare African black rhinoceros,” the reader knows that a moral monster has been introduced. On the other hand, the “ecoterrorist” who will torment Stoat, young Twilly Spree—who is driven to purposeful fury by the sight of a litterbug in action—clearly has Hiaasen's sympathies.
Chaz Perrone of Skinny Dip is a biologist for the state of Florida. If he is a biologist, he must be a good guy, right? No. Apart from being incompetent—typically a sign of moral weakness in Hiaasen—Chaz is crooked. His job requires him to monitor the presence of pollutants in a section of the Everglades subject to runoff from the property of a rich farmer, Red Hammernut. Chaz systematically misreports the results, making it appear that Hammernut is complying with environmental regulations when, in fact, his farms continue to pour pollutants into the ecosystem. For this service Chaz is well compensated—though he would enjoy a perfectly comfortable lifestyle in any case. He is not, however, simply dishonest and selfish. He loathes the natural world—an attitude that marks him, in Hiaasen's work, as an irredeemably flawed human being.
This is the sort of man who is capable of planning the...
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