Better than literature

Peter Campbell

  • Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen
    Macmillan, 325 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 333 56829 X

The frights the news brings – from child abuse to acid rain – prepare the mind for fictional scares. Carl Hiaasen’s comic thrillers deal with crimes against the planet. He puts wetland clearance and condominium building up alongside bank robbery and murder. His books do not offer hope. Right can only win in the short term. We are all guilty of existence and our sheer numbers make us enemies of the good green earth. Ben Elton dabbled in these waters in Stark, and, despite the jokes, there is no reason to believe that he or Hiaasen think humans are capable of much enlightened self-interest. So, while there are plenty of human deaths and maimings in Hiaasen’s books, bulldozed mangroves are what bring a glitter to the hard man’s eye and rage to his heart. When, in Skin Tight, a tree surgeon puts a mistake made by his brother (a plastic surgeon) through a wood-chipping machine, the minced flesh raises no more than a passing yuck, while in Native Tongue the torn limb of a red mangrove, trashed to make way for a golf course, wins a genuine tear. Hiaasen writes to a formula with brilliant success. His books are addictive. The centres of gratification they stimulate are reached via the primitives of storytelling: agile-and-clever defeating slow-strong-and-stupid; the princess choosing the miller’s son – Hiaasen’s girls tend to make the moves; pure destruction. By reliably offering such pleasures Hiaasen induces dependence. One may miss the sour bite of bleaker comedy, found in the best crime stories of a more realistic kind, but for entertainment few can match him.

Hiaasen’s patch is Florida. Its Everglades and Keys; barracuda, turkey vultures, alligators and panthers do more than decorate the landscape of his plots. They are actors. In his new book, Native Tongue, scandals are uncovered in the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, an abominably tacky animal theme park, whose owner’s loathing of the Disney opposition is visibly expressed on his forearm in an obscene tattoo of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Here one leading character, Orca the killer whale, chokes to death on a biologist; another, Dickie, a sex-starved dolphin, drowns a security guard during an amorous underwater assault. Fish are important too. The real hero of Double Whammy is a gigantic bass. Going fishing is a Hiaasen hero’s equivalent to Philip Marlowe’s chess problems.

The archetypical Hiaasen good man, who turns up again in Native Tongue, is Skink, otherwise Clinton Tyree, a one-time Governor of Florida who disappeared from the Gubernatorial office one day, sick at heart over the corruption money and man had wrought in his state. He gets his meat from the roads – squashed possum and snake – and lives in hideouts, on the edge of one or other remnant of wild forest or in the heart of a deserted dump. He is, despite his pink plastic rain hat, orange waterproof, braided beard and missing eye (violent plots have marked him), immensely charismatic – six foot six with a wonderful white smile. He is able to match the heavies blow for blow, and, when his rage at man’s destruction of nature peaks, bring passing tourist’s cars to a halt with well aimed shots. Nick Nolte seems the man for the part.

In Hiaasen’s plots good people are usually pretty, and often big and strong; the motivation is Sierra Club, the cast Miami Vice. In this he differs from other thriller writers who have found in Florida the new face of crime. Charles Willeford, whose Detective Sergeant Hoke Moseley ‘looked a little better, he thought, with the blue-grey teeth and always put his dentures in before shaving’, never gets half so close to creating dreamboats. Hiaasen’s use of fancy machinery, explosions, physically repellent criminals and pretty girls has a period flavour. He revives a Bond-movie style of fast-action farce; Willeford – and Elmore Leonard, who also finds in Florida crime a source for anarchic chills and threats – are realists by comparison. Hiaasen is, on the other hand, very quick on new phenomena: the girl who works on a porn phone-in line gets literary and syndicates her erotic scripts. The epilogue tells that she has published in the New Yorker and been praised by Erica Jong.

On Hiaasen’s dust-jackets the publishers quote P.J. O’Rourke: ‘Better than literature.’ It is well put. Literature does not eat up plot as fast as this. In Skin Tight Mick Stranahan arrives at his little house, stilted up over the shallow water of Biscayne Bay. Before many pages have gone by he has used a carpenter’s level to reassure a young woman that the symmetry of her breasts has not been affected by their recent surgical enlargement, done violence to her boyfriend who got aggressive about this conversation, and speared his would-be assassin with the head of a stuffed marlin. A nice touch: the successor to the marlin-spiked hitman arrives, dressed for Little Italy – not Florida, on a jet ski.

Hiaasen writes a twice-weekly newspaper column. This may explain the unliterary speed of his quick-reading prose, and the smart repartee. It may also explain the production-line quality of Hiaasen plots. Among the regular components are a major villain to scale up the action. In Native Tongue it is Francis X. Kingsbury, aka Frankie King, mobster, property speculator and theme park owner; in Double Whammy a wonderfully sleazy television evangelist who has made a fortune from redneck religion coupled with competition fishing and is likewise into property development; in Skin Tight the action is generated by the lethal incompetence of a plastic surgeon whose success with marketing is threatened by his slips with the scalpel. Once a plot gets rolling a straight man will get caught up in the machinery – a journalist or honest ex-cop, for example. Minor criminals of the benign kind also figure: in Native Tongue a pair of burglars who hate guns are shot (in hand and foot) by the white-haired old widow woman who has hired them for an animal liberation exercise. It does not spoil their relationship.

A Hiaasen speciality is the psychopath who clings to life with inhuman tenacity, despite suffering dramatic injury and losing bits of his body on the way. A kidnapper in Double Whammy beheads the pit bull terrier which attacks him, but not before the dog has clamped its jaws irremovably onto his arm. The festering wound and rotting dog’s dead are a memorable attribute. But so is the intravenous drip which the body-building security guard in Native Tongue wheels round with him, keeping up a steady infusion of steroids. He loses a fingertip to the old lady’s powerful bite and gnaws off his own foot when it is crushed under a car. A hard man who loses a hand has a hedge-trimmer fitted as a prosthesis.

Scary stories make anxieties manageable. Hiaasen’s novels cheerfully confront a doomed world, too corrupt, too casually wicked, for the forces of decency to cure it. This is not like the little town in the Western which will come right once the good sheriff drives out the wicked cattlemen. It is not even a question of the one good man and the mean streets down which he must go. Hiaasen’s books make the gloomiest possible assumptions about human nature and the future of the planet. But Florida Man, like Midas or the sorcerer’s apprentice, destroyed by his own desires, is a figure of farce, not tragedy. Hiaasen turns him into a cast of comics.