For the 12 years I spent in Florida, I never thought the state needed its own satirist, since my local newspaper did such a bang up job in that department simply by reporting the news. And mind you, I left Florida well before Katherine Harris and dangling chads and the “election” of 2000—although I can’t say I was surprised by any of that. No one who has spent more than a vacation in the Sunshine State would think that was the least bit out of line. Odd, yes, but odd is ordinary in Florida. My favorite headline in the local paper during my Florida tenure—heck, my favorite headline ever, read simply BAR REGULAR DIES AFTER FALL FROM STOOL. OK, that could happen just about anywhere, but when it happens in Florida, you read that headline, put the paper down beside your orange juice and say, “Well, of course.” I don’t think that’s the reaction in most places.
So, while I lived in Florida, I never gave Carl Hiaasen a second thought. I respected him, as a novelist and as a newspaper columnist for the Miami Herald. I wished him well in his quixotic effort to use humor to bring his fellow citizens to their senses. Hiaasen is a Florida native who loves his state despite everything that’s happened to it in his lifetime, and the coolest thing about him is that he almost never loses his temper. At least he never lets his temper show in his novels. When I lived there, I would get so mad at the developers and the overpopulation and the underfunding for just about everything that I thought the top of my head was going to explode on a daily basis. Hiaasen just sits down and coolly writes another bitterly funny book to get even with the people who’re working around the clock to destroy the place he loves the best. That’s class.
Still, since Florida does such a bang up job of satirizing itself, who needs Hiaasen? Or so I wondered when I lived there. Now that I don’t live there, I think of him as a national treasure who probably ought to be in the Witness Protection Program. Because now I understand that since most people who don’t live in Florida don’t read Florida newspapers, they have no idea how insane it is there, or how just imperiled one of the most oddly beautiful places on the planet is. So they badly need Hiaasen to tell them. I would say they need writers like Hiaasen, but really there are no writers like him. He is singular. Too bad, in a way, because as good as he is at what he does, he could use some help. Saving the Sunshine State is too much for one man.
Not that I want him to stop, because I have yet to be disappointed. “Nature Girl,” Hiaasen’s latest, keeps his string going in fine fashion. The title character is a woman named Honey Santana. Honey has issues, many of them mental, some treatable, and most of them probably a lot more fun to read about than to live with. Hiaasen sums up his “certifiably tilted” heroine this way: “She thought she’d heard voices, but what else was new? Rarely was there a silence in her world; no peace, no quiet. Nat King Cole crooned a duet with Marilyn Manson, a sniper tripped a fire alarm at the nursing home, a parakeet landed in a margarita blender ... Just another day inside the head of Honey Santana.” Honey gets manic about her causes—mostly environmental—and downright obsessive about rearing her teenage son, Fry, to be an honest, caring citizen. But what kick-starts “Nature Girl”’s plot is Honey’s wrath at a sleaze named Boyd Shreave who tries to sell her some worthless Florida real estate over the phone and then tops it all off by calling her a “skank” before hanging up. Honey spends most of the rest of the book taking revenge because “a man who phoned people at the dinner hour and then insulted them coarsely when they objected ... needed a lesson in manners and propriety.”
I know, I know, phone solicitation isn’t unique to Florida, although if this were a poetically just world, it would be. (Of course, if this were a poetically just world, there would be no Florida as we know it: despoiled where not destroyed outright.) Besides Honey’s story, there’s a plot line involving a young Seminole Indian hiding out in the Everglades, an insane fish-market owner who’s carnally obsessed with Honey and Honey’s son and Honey’s ex and somehow they all wind up on one of the Ten Thousand Islands in a plot that takes too much time to unravel here and doesn’t make all that much sense in the first place. Because you don’t read Hiaasen for the plot, you read him for his asides and broadsides against every kind of sleaze—theme-park sleaze, sugar-baron sleaze, wetlands-developer sleaze or even phone solicitor sleaze—and for his wonderful, throwaway character sketches. Summing up the girlfriend of Honey’s ex, a woman who appears for literally one paragraph and then vanishes for the rest of the book, he writes, “Her name was Debbie but she preferred to be called Sienna. Skinner had once asked her why she’d named herself after a Crayola, and she’d gotten her feelings hurt ... Her brother was a tight-end for the Jacksonville Jaguars, which at least gave her and Skinner something to talk about during football season. The rest of the year it was pretty slow going.”
Hiaasen’s latest novel targets his most evil opponent: the telephone solicitor
Hiaasen is not just a good comic writer. He’s just a good writer. Watch how he extols the natural beauty of his native state—by not extolling it, by seeing it through the eyes of someone who doesn’t appreciate it: “Not being the spiritual sort, Boyd Shreave saw no divine hand in the unbroken wilderness that lay before him; no grand design in the jungle labyrinth of creeks and islets. Such unspoiled vistas inspired in Shreave not a nanosecond of introspection; when it came to raw nature, he remained staunchly incurious and devoid of awe. He would much rather have been back in Fort Worth, watching ‘American Idol,’ swilling beer and gorging himself on microwave burritos.”
Hiaasen makes what he does look so effortless that it's easy not to take him seriously. I’m sure non-Floridians read Hiaasen for the entertainment and think, what a fabulist! How does he think this stuff up? Stuff like: “a scandalous story in the St. Petersburg Times about a powerful state legislator who’d put his favorite Hooters waitress on the state payroll.” Floridians, on the other hand, just think he’s got the world’s easiest novel gig: copying what he reads in the paper every day.
Tougher question: Hiaasen doesn’t just have Florida to himself. He’s got the whole country pretty much to call his own for satirical purposes. Why is that? What happened to satire in American literature? Or, for that matter, just plain old comedy? Where did it go? There was a time, and not so long ago, when the woods were full of funny writers, from Bruce Jay Friedman to Terry Southern to Nora Ephron to Philip Roth to Donald Barthelme to … the point is, I could go on and on and now I can’t. Not with writers. TV? Lots of great comic stuff, from "The Simpsons" to Jon Stewart. Movies are still funny. Sometimes Broadway is funny. But books? You’ll find more laughs on YouTube.
It’s like the country’s funny writers had a meeting and decided to all seek employment elsewhere. The other day The New York Times ran a story about anthology of the writing in the defunct humor magazine Spy (“Spy: The Funny Years”). Accompanying the story was a graphic showing what had happened to the people on the magazine’s masthead. Almost without exception, the staffers went on to straight jobs in mainstream media. Humor was, apparently, little more than a career move for these folks. Or maybe they’re all working for satirical change from the inside. But I want to know, guys, why did you quit? Were there threats? Because the literary landscape out there right now could use all the funny writers it can get. Besides Hiaasen, there’s just the incomparable Donald Westlake, the way too laconic Charles Portis and ... I’m dyin’ here.
These are not rhetorical questions. I’m genuinely puzzled by all this. The only explanation I’ve heard that makes the least bit of sense is from a friend who thinks that people read at least partly out of a sense of duty (“I’ll join a book group to make sure I keep reading”). There’s sort of a merit badge aura around reading a book, he thinks, and humorous writing doesn’t earn you as many points as, say, reading the latest David McCullough. So people in cities without good symphony orchestras, they have to read even more to keep their cultural cred up, I asked. Something like that, he replied. I don’t know if he’s right or not, but at least he made me laugh.