You would never notice to look at him, but Carl Hiaasen is angry again. The soft-spoken 46-year-old native Floridian still has his easy smile and gentle collegiate manner intact, despite a couple grueling days at the Miami Book Fair. There, fellow Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry enlisted his help to fill in for the sidelined Stephen King in the all-author Rock Bottom Remainders band the previous evening. "I’m just learning the guitar, so it was pretty embarrassing," he admits. "I think they just wanted another target."
If you got hooked on Hiaasen back in 1986 with his debut, Tourist Season, but have sensed a lack of righteous moral outrage at greedy developers and crooked politicians in the last few books, take heart: In Sick Puppy, it’s back with a vengeance.
Twilly Spree, the trust-fund vagabond son of a beachfront developer, has vowed to make reparations for his father by cleaning up Florida one litterbug at a time. When state lobbyist Palmer Stoat leaves a trail of McDonald’s detritus in the wake of his Range Rover, Spree can’t resist teaching him a lesson — several times over. The young eco-avenger soon learns that Stoat is greasing a deal to build a bridge to a Gulf Coast island targeted by an unscrupulous developer with a Barbie fixation. That’s when Spree steals Stoat’s Labrador retriever and his trophy wife and attempts to derail the project.
"Part of this was a generational thing in my own life, because I felt, Look at me, I’m just getting old and cranky, I’m 46 and I feel this way," says Hiaasen. "I don’t see any kids who feel like this. They look around and this is the Florida they grew up in and they don’t give a s_ _ _ about anything. But you know what? Then I would go to colleges and universities and meet kids here at the book fair and they are very interested in what the future holds for their kids, what the Everglades will look like in 20 years or what Biscayne Bay will look like.
"So I thought, what would happen if I had someone in the book who just snapped a little earlier? I had fun with Twilly, reliving some of the same angst and fury I felt as a kid. I think going young with that character helped me keep the fire stoked."
No doubt it was the prospect of once again skewering the developers and crooked politicians that brought another character stumbling forth from the deep swamp: former Governor Clinton Tyree, also known as Skink. The funky elder statesman and the young idealist share this moment on the road:
"[Skink] set his gaze on Twilly Spree and said, ‘Son, I can’t tell you what to do with your life — hell, you’ve seen what I’ve done with mine. But I will tell you there’s probably no peace for people like you and me in this world. Somebody’s got to be angry or nothing gets fixed. That’s what we were put here for, to stay pissed off.’
Twilly said, ‘They made me take a class for it, captain. I was not cured.’
‘Anger management. I’m perfectly serious.’
Skink hooted. ‘For Christ’s sake, what about greed management? Everybody in this state should take a course in that. You fail, they haul your sorry ass to the border and throw you out of Florida.’"
Hiaasen admits he had to keep the charismatic former governor on a tight leash.
"I knew he was going to be in the novel, but I’d made up my mind he wasn’t going to be in the first part of the novel because he does sort of tend to come on stage and start dominating, and he really is out of my control at that point. He just is what he is. Also, I wanted him older and tired and confronted with a younger version of himself."
The author shrugs off parallels between Twilly and himself. Hiaasen’s father and grandfather were both attorneys in Fort Lauderdale, but he says they were just as surprised and baffled by the rampant growth in south Florida as he was.
"Now you have land use attorneys whose job it is to get around master plans and zoning restrictions, and they make good livings off finding loopholes or making loopholes so people can build something where they weren’t intended to build it," he says. "A good example is Key West. . . . They live off the Hemingway mystique, they trade on the Hemingway mystique, constantly. If Hemingway were alive, he’d take a flame-thrower to Duval Street, and that’s the truth. Fifty T-shirt shops? Give me a break."
Surprisingly, Hiaasen spends considerable pages making the loutish lobbyist Palmer Stoat one of his most fully realized characters.
"The trouble is, he sort of checks his moral compass at the door and that’s what gets him," he says. "In the end, he’ll do anything for a buck for anyone with a buck. He just doesn’t see that he’s doing anything wrong; he doesn’t think about the consequences. That’s what I was trying to get across. It’s different from having a villain who is skinning people and eating their brains."
Having written his eight satirical novels from an omniscient point of view, Hiaasen is toying with a first-person narrative next time out. So far, he has fought the tempting offers from Hollywood to develop a series character along the lines of Travis McGee.
"I said, in the first place, I’m not John D. MacDonald. I’d give anything if I could write that way, out of that guy’s head, again and again, but I can’t. I get bored," he says. "Whatever character I come up with for this novel is going to have to be very, very interesting for me to stay inside his head the whole length of it. I think I’m going to have to do a better job of coming up with someone I can stand."
Jay Lee MacDonald is a writer in Naples, Florida.
Author photo by Elena Seibert.