Kind of an interesting pairing of novels, Carl Hiaasen’s Chomp and Cynthia DeFelice’s Wild Life have little in common thematically, to say nothing of the fact that one, Chomp, is pretty much a comedy while the other, Wild Life, is a more straightforward drama. The main, and obvious parallels between the two novels resides in the identities of the protagonists, both boys, and the fact that both stories take place in the great outdoors, Chomp in the Florida Everglades region and Wild Life in the northern Midwest, specifically, North Dakota. Both involve boys who are comfortable in the outdoors, although Erik, the young protagonist of Wild Life, is immersed in a more alien environment with little support while Wahoo Cray enjoys the company of his father and the television crew with which he is working. With two such divergent plots and themes, it is not surprising that these two boys share little in common.
Wahoo is the son of Mickey Cray, an animal wrangler who works with film and television producers whose shows require the presence of realistic, but tamed “wild” animals, including Alice, Mickey’s alligator. Like Erik, who is thrust into the uncomfortable position of having to look out for himself when his parents are deployed to Iraq and he is sent to stay with relatives in North Dakota, Wahoo is thrust into a position of responsibility beyond his years when Mickey is rendered incapacitated by virtue of the serious concussion he suffered when a large frozen iguana fell on his head, and his mother departs for China to teach Mandarin to American business executives. In this, the parallel between the two boys is clear. Hiaasen’s novel, however, is comedic, while DeFelice’s is anything but. Furthermore, while Wahoo, despite his name (“Mickey had named him after Wahoo McDaniel, a professional wrestler who’d once played linebacker for the Dolphins. . .It was a name that was hard to live up to. People naturally expected somebody called Wahoo to act loud and crazy, but that wasn’t Wahoo’s style.”) is the island of emotional stability in Hiaasen’s story – the proverbial sane person among a sea of insanity in the forms of Mickey and, most prominently, television personality Derek Badger, Erik is the youngster forced to exist among perfectly capable adults, but one of whom, his grandfather, would much rather the boy wasn’t there.
There is a slight parallel from the survivalist perspective between the situations in which the two boys find themselves. Erik chooses to run away from his grandparents’ home with the dog his grandfather wants to be rid of, and his story of survival begins. Wahoo and the television crew encounter difficulties and end up on an island, but there is little doubt that the severity of their respective situations diverges markedly. A light-hearted story like Chomp is unlikely to produce a protagonist like Erik, a serious and thoughtful boy whose love for a dog propels the story. Wahoo is at the center of Hiaasen’s novel, but leaves little footprint with respect to the gravity of his situation. He is the foil to Mickey and Derek’s eccentricities; their straight man, if you will. Erik is the story in Wild Life; his is the conscience that provides DeFelice’s novel its moral compass.