Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1754
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 cold-blooded murder of his wife, Joey, because he fears (wrongly) that she has figured out his arrangement with Hammernut. She has become an inconvenience, and Chaz's first thought—as if there were no alternative—is that he must get rid of her. He meticulously plans the attempted murder—which takes place on an anniversary cruise—and congratulates himself afterward on its flawless execution, unaware that Joey has survived.
In contrast, there is Mick Stranahan, the protagonist of Hiaasen's 1989 novel Skin Tight, in which the most conspicuous prevailing folly is plastic surgery. In Skin Tight, the thirty-nine-year-old Stranahan has just “retired” on disability from his job as an investigator for the Florida State Attorney's Office. In fact he is not disabled at all, but, having killed a corrupt judge in self-defense, he has become something of an embarrassment—hence the fiction that removes him from the public eye.
Stranahan is quite happy to be so removed. By the time of Skinny Dip he has been enjoying retirement for almost fifteen years, lately ensconced on an “island” that is really just a big lump of coral. When he needs to get provisions, he hops in his boat and makes a quick run to Miami. Most of the time he is blissfully alone, fishing and reading and lounging about, though at intervals he falls in love with a waitress here or there on the mainland, marries her, and soon falls out of love again. This has happened six times during his “retirement” (though the sixth short-lived marriage broke the pattern when he fell for a television producer).
While Chaz, the murderous incompetent, is almost pathologically uncomfortable in any place where nature is not entirely tamed, Stranahan is a natural man to a fault, even given to skinny-dipping. It is he who finds Joey naked and unconscious, still clinging to the bale. Once she has recovered and told him her strange tale, he agrees to help her exact revenge upon Chaz—another recurring scenario in Hiaasen's novels, where the good guys pay heed to their version of the natural law and ignore the law books and the courts and all of society's clumsy mechanisms, preferring to dispense rough justice as they see fit.
Clearly, according to the canons of Hiaasenland, Joey and Stranahan are made for each other. They are splendid physical specimens; they are resourceful and trustworthy; they follow their instincts. Unsurprisingly, they soon find themselves in bed together. Given their track records, the long-term prospects are not good, but for the span of this book at least they are in harmony, somewhat in the manner of movie couples in the fast-talking romantic comedies of the 1930's, where all the spats and misunderstandings are created only to be resolved.
If the novel were divided between such paragons (however unconventional their virtue) and the likes of Chaz, it would lack sufficient variety and ordinariness. Even readers not averse to a dose of wish-fulfillment may find Stranahan a bit much. (Imagine Ian Fleming's James Bond character as a beach bum, never at a loss, whether preparing a fresh-caught dinner or dealing with a violent thug. Stranahan's closest fictional ancestor, however, is John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, to whom Hiaasen tips his hat.) Thus there are additional figures such as the police detective Karl Rolvaag, who is about to leave Florida for good and return to the Midwest. Rolvaag is an ordinary guy for the most part, an effective foil to the larger-than-life types, decent and competent, but he does own two large snakes: a quirk that signals his virtue, just as Chaz's satisfaction in running over a snake signals his depravity.
There is also the hulking Earl Edward O’Toole, known as “Tool.” He is also a recurring figure in Hiaasen's fiction: the grotesque villain, perhaps most memorably imagined in Skin Tight in the character of Blondell Wayne Tatum, known as “Chemo,” who after losing a hand (to a barracuda, during a failed attempt to kill Stranahan) replaces it with a Weed Whacker, powered by a battery pack that he attaches under his arm. Like Chemo, Tool is a simple soul who begins by simply doing as he is told (and paid) to do but who comes (in the course of the book) to question whether he should continue to do so. In Tool's case the transformation is more dramatic; more than any of the other principal characters, he changes in the course of the book, toward what counts as enlightenment in Hiaasenland. If he is Hammernut's hired gun at the start of the book, by the end he is Hammernut's executioner, a tool of justice, for the corrupt farmer is not only a world-class polluter but also a deep-dyed racist, a sin which Hiaasen never leaves unpunished.
It is a tribute to Hiaasen's art that the moral transformation of such a grotesque can be moving; characters in a good satire have a way of taking on life like this, even as they remain firmly within the schematic requirements of the genre. So, too, with the fate of Chaz. He is a butt of satire from the outset, thoroughly unsympathetic. Having (as he supposes) killed his wife, he comes to believe that he must kill his mistress, Ricca, as well. This second bungled murder attempt is not only more wildly out-of-kilter than the first but also more disturbing, so that tangled up with black comedy there is genuine horror at the progressive evil. Chaz, too, will meet his avenging angel, that virtuous madman of the Everglades known as Skink or “captain,” who appears in many of Hiaasen's novels.
One of the virtually unchallenged maxims of fiction-writing, laid down everywhere from junior high classrooms to the trendiest M.F.A. programs, is that good fiction is never didactic. This is simply not true, and there is no shortage of counterexamples, including the fiction of Hiaasen. For all its humor, dark and light, a book such as Skinny Dip is as overtly moralistic as one of those nineteenth century novels inspired by the temperance movement. Whether its moral vision, its scale of values, is ultimately persuasive is a question for another day.
Booklist 100, no. 17 (May 1, 2004): 1514.
Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 10 (May 15, 2004): 460.
Library Journal 129, no. 10 (June 1, 2004): 122.
The New York Times, July 12, 2004, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review 153 (July 11, 2004): 17.
People 62, no. 5 (August 2, 2004): 47.
Publishers Weekly 251, no. 19 (May 10, 2004): 34.