Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Carl Hiaasen Fundamentals and 'Nature Girl'

Like the lines about sex and pizza, even when they're bad, Carl Hiaasen novels are still pretty good. Regrettably, his latest, Nature Girl, is like the more-of-me-to-love girl with the cute face but the dumps like "uh...what?" who you left the hotel bar with, while on a business trip, after you both got totally hammered.

As said, it was probably pretty good. But if you've any other positive frame of reference, it's also probable you took less delight in it than you'd have liked. As is the case with all Hiaasen books — even those he's written for young adults — Nature Girl entertains and provokes a few really good laughs. It only falls short in comparison to Hiaasen's earlier examples of the satiric-comic-Florida-environmental caper novel. In fact, part of the problem surely lies with the fact that Hiaasen's novels usually contain such similar characteristics that it's easy to see how they stack up against each other.

For example, almost all Hiaasen novels feature the same elements:

One (1) Wish Fulfillment Male (WFM) Character
A kind of hyper-idealized Ur-Floridian, a guy who's a native, who compulsively prevents littering, fishes for tarpon like an expert, loves swamps, snakes, bugs, toads and muck. Has a preternatural tolerance for and adoration of things like mosquitoes that even authentic Floridians find incredibly irritating. Only dislikes: development, music that is not motown or rock and roll made by white people from 1960-1980. Despite perhaps having a normal professional job, possesses a unique ability to swing shotgun stocks into the skulls of murderous thugs, cope with the horrifyingly unusual and stare down the muzzle of a gun with a well-tanned crow's-footed squint and tight-lipped grin that is probably meant to look exactly like the picture of Hiaasen on the back cover. The "oh, that's Carl" factor explains the fact that he will effortlessly bed:

Up to Two (2) Wish Fulfillment Female (WFF) Characters
Always of average height but athletic build, their lissomeness interrupted only by a sweet rack whose knowledge of gravity remains merely theoretical. If a girl starts out the story as ditzy, impulsive, needy and ignorant about Florida, she will rapidly learn about the state, learn when to keep her mouth shut, at which point the Hiaasen stand-in grudgingly allows himself to bone her, usually in something deeply unerotic but environmentally authentic, like a leech-filled bog or a coastal mangrove thicket. Far more often, the WFF character Hiaasen goes for is in her early thirties, deeply disappointed by men, feeling that there's no wonder, love or life to her world — that is, until he comes along. Awakened by excitement and nature, she often turns into the eco-friendly pixie-ish analogue to Natalie Portman's hipster girl of your dreams from Garden State.

One (1) Straw Man for the Rape of Florida
Sometimes this person effectively is the Amoral Monster outlined below. Other times, he keeps the Amoral Monster in his employ. Still other times, as in Nature Girl, the character advocating Florida rapine is unaware of his actions but nevertheless must be brought to realize the destruction to which he contributes. These characters can run the gamut from telemarketers to real-estate developers, Big Sugar lobbyists, amusement park owners and home inspectors (the sudden flying roof phenomenon during Hurricane Andrew owed as much to nature's fury as it did to corrupt inspectors who signed off on homes whose roofs were simply not tied and nailed down during construction).

One (1) Amoral Monster
This character typically spends the beginning of the book expertly killing the shit out of something innocent, like sparrows, while completely botching easier jobs, like, "Hitting an American male with shotgun blast inside a car." Usually one-third of the way through the book, you learn the Amoral Monster's complete biography, including full name and maybe some redemptive quality he once had. Despite this, there's typically only a weak reason for his being so totally incompetently evil and stupid, a tenuousness capped off by an even more inexplicable denouement, often involving:

One (1) Grotesque Physical Injury
Classic example: dog bites Amoral Monster's arm and won't let go; Amoral Monster chops dog's body off but can't remove head; begins taking more and more opiates, starts talking to dog. While they're often very funny, Hiaasen's books rely an awful lot on someone doing horrible things for dubious reasons, then getting mindbendingly fucked up on booze or drugs to facilitate their doing even more dubious and stupid things for the purposes of plot advancement.

One (1) Mystical "Floridian" Character
Pick one of two:
Former Governor Clinton "Skink" Tyree
An indian

One might get the impression from this list that Hiaasen books are bad. Far from it. Like all great genre novelists — and the "Florida Novel" is most definitely a genre, and Hiaasen is most definitely great — he knows that his fanbase comes back for certain elements each time. What counts as originality is tinkering with a charming formula to produce unexpected riffs. Most Hiaasen fans want to see him stick up for Florida and for the environment. Most get a kick out of evilly violent things happening to the bad guys. Most, too, probably like hearing about the protagonist getting lucky.

You can always count on Hiaasen books to illuminate some new predatory aspect of urban/suburban development or Floridian governmental venality, and you can always count on at least five good laughs. To a certain extent, you kind of want him to phone it in, because newness is unreliable. You grab the book when heading out to the beach or the airport, and you don't want to spend the next four hours digesting something experimental. It's the same reason you turn on Law & Order: not because it's Great, but because it's Great At What It Does. Unfortunately, with Nature Girl, it feels like Hiaasen phoned in his phoning it in.

The plot is among his thinnest. After being irritated by telemarketer Boyd Shreave, Honey Santana lures Shreave down to Florida for a fake real-estate pitch. Her adolescent son and her ex-husband, both aware of her manic episodes, watch her with concern but do nothing to intervene, despite ample warning signs. To reinvigorate his affair, Shreave brings his mistress on the trip with him, unaware that he's being tailed by a private detective, hired by his wife, who's determined to get a video of Shreave and Mistress "with penetration." Honey takes Shreave and Mistress to an island offshore, where she plans to lecture him about manners. Unbeknownst to all of them: Amoral Monster Louis Piejack refuses to let Honey go and is in hot pursuit; and Mystical "Floridian" Character Sammy Tigertail (indian) and an FSU coed named Gillian (WFF character) wait on the same island. Will Honey's son and her ex-husband, the Wish Fulfillment Male character, be able to save the day?

Hiaasen deserves some credit for trying to mix up the formulas on his wish fulfillment. He's sort of subdivided himself into Honey's ex-husband and the indian, Tigertail, and he even practices some restraint by not having the former have sex with anyone during the course of the book. Still, Honey and Gillian fit the familiar roles of disillusioned older babe and good-hearted immature yappy bimbo who will grow in knowledge of Florida and the world before her pursed, rosy lips grow full with desire.

It wouldn't be surprising to discover Hiaasen wanted to recreate the Skink/Trooper Jim Tile dynamic with Honey's ex and Sammy Tigertail, spinning them off into a new series of adventures. The story arcs for both seem disappointingly inchoate, never taking off with the sort of energy and surprise that Hiaasen's male protagonists are known for. It's too bad, because while this is Honey's book, the impetus for her actions remains thin, dubious and not very sympathetic. While we all hate telemarketers, her idea of vengeance comes off as trying as the phone ringing through dinner.

Much of the book doesn't live up to the expectations Hiaasen's met readily in the past. Louis Piejack is one of the worst of his Amoral Monsters. He's a flatline of evil, so one-dimensionally malicious that he bores. At no point does he give any real account for endangering himself with the law, with Honey and Honey's ex for what seems like a sudden and unexpected goal. Piejack also suffers from possibly the stupidest Grotesque Physical Injury Hiaasen's yet devised, one that defies even the already very elastic concepts of Hiaasenean medicine.

The private detective likewise delivers little in the way of bang, laughs or depth, and his subplot with Shreave's divorce-plotting wife stands as one of Hiassen's less inspired partnerships. Hiaasen never fully commits either to the gag that the wife gets off on watching her husband screw his mistress or that she's so ruthless that she wants to nail him to the wall in court. While waffling over both options, the comedy falls flat.

Finally, there's the addition of the precocious adolescent. Aside from his father springing him from the hospital, after he'd suffering a massive concussion, so they can go on a dangerous adventure together — which is irritating enough — the kid mostly displays the standard irritating wisdom and maturity-beyond-his-years schtick so common to family movies. Although the fact that he runs like crazy with a football helmet on and may be named after a character from Futurama might endear him to some audiences.

Of all the characters, Sammy Tigertail has the most potential for good comedy and adventures in future books. A half-white Seminole who sucks at being indian but has no fondness for being white, who shoots at frat boys to get 'em off his island, who has a Mark Knoplfer Gibson guitar and can't play a lick, he has a naturally accessible awkwardness and need to figure himself out. Sammy seems nicely conflicted and just under-confident enough to win over audiences for a book's length. Unfortunately, with the limited role he plays in much of the plot, he's easily overshadowed by the hilariously callow, vain and stupid Boyd Shreave, who takes center stage less because of any innate timelessness to his character but because of the weakness of the surrounding cast.

The book still meets the standard of at least five good laughs. And it sticks up for Florida and the Seminoles. It even features scenes of intercourse. It's fun because it's Hiaasen, and Hiaasen is always fun. But it lacks the acid righteousness, giddy pacing and sparks of inspired idiocy of many of his other books. And despite being a novel largely about a family, the family dynamic seems a little resigned to being dragged along with the action as opposed to really reacting to it — as if the son and ex look at their manic mom/wife, shrug and say, "Well, heeeeeeeere we go again!"

Two novels ago, Hiaasen took a chance with Basket Case and wrote his first novel in the first person. The change in authorial perspective brought with it a sudden increase in depth and poignancy. Hiaasen's books have always been angry advocates, but this was a sad one, too. It still exhibited the same laughs and cynicism and excitement, but it did so with a protagonist who might have been the closest to three-dimensional that Hiaasen's ever penned.

Since then, though, he's stepped back from that effort. Perhaps the novel sold poorly compared to his others. Perhaps he simply didn't enjoy writing it. Still, the return to formula since then has seemed less inspired than in the novels preceding it. Maybe that's the unfair effect of being able to finally compare first-person to third-person Hiaasen — his setting a new bar for himself and not wanting to try to jump that high again. Whatever the reason, this book unfortunately takes its place as one of the "lesser Hiaasens" if not the least. Which, you know, is still pretty good.


Rating: 2.5
I never thought I'd rate a Hiaasen book under three. Points off for a weak plot, bizarrely flat Amoral Monster, cutesy adolescent, the dead-end plot between the wife and the PI and the under-development of Sammy Tigertail and Honey's ex-husband. Points for being Hiaasen and being totally readable anyway.




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