Hiaasen’s lazy swim

C
arl Hiaasen is the Elmore Leonard of South Florida, delivering the same combination of off-beat characters, thrown together in absurd and menacing situations, with a guarantee that after 300 pages, everything will come out all right in the end with virtue rewarded and evil given the heave-ho.

“Skinny Dip,” Hiaasen’s 10th novel, starts off with a bang when Joey Perrone learns that her husband of two years wishes to end their marriage when he upends her over the railing of a cruise ship off the coast of Miami. Instead of swimming with the sharks, she manages to stay afloat long enough to encounter, first, a bale of Jamaican grass to hang onto, and then Mick Stranahan, who rescues her.

Stranahan’s a police officer who was forced to retire early after shooting a judge in self- defense. He works as a caretaker for the small island home of a Mexican novelist, which gives Joey a chance to recover in peace and wonder why her husband wanted her dead. She enlists Stranahan’s help to find out why, and, at the same time, gain revenge on her faithless and murderous spouse.

Along the way, they run up against Tool, a mountain-man of an enforcer with a taste for roadside memorials and fentanyl patches, an industrial agriculturalist who’s dumping toxic levels of fertilizer and pesticides into the Everglades, and a detective who keeps 7-foot-long pythons as pets.

With this cast of characters, “Skinny Dip” should be a lethal looney romp. Yet I rarely cracked a smile. The budding relationship between Joey and Mick is charming and romantic in its rough-hewn fashion, and Tool undergoes a surprising change.

As he’s done in his other novels, Hiaasen a Florida native and longtime columnist for the Miami Herald throws in rants against the agricultural industries who have raped the Everglades for profit, the cities who have drained its freshwater aquifers, and the politicians who have permitted it.

But “Skinny Dip” is a lazy book. Thrillers work best when the heroine faces and overcomes insurmountable odds. But Joey’s husband is unpleasant to be around, incompetent as a wildlife biologist and a horndog of Clintonian proportions. He’s also an incompetent villain. Over the course of the book, he’s insulted, attacked and abused by almost everyone. Despite his attempts at homicide, you can almost feel sorry for the poor fool.

For a book meant to be read on the sands, it’s got too much grit and not enough wit.

UPDATE: While more forgiving, this review by Annie Linskey of The Baltimore Sun still takes Hiaasen to the woodshed:

But much of the story’s potential goes untapped. The tale is set against a tantalizingly substantive backdrop – the $8 billion federal and state project to restore the Everglades. But Hiaasen doesn’t make use of it. One character cynically calculates “no less than a third of [the money] would be ripped off by lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and big-riggers favored by well-placed politicians.” Too bad this wonderful source for motive and corruption is left alone.

Instead, Hiaasen chooses to focus on a small-time scam on the periphery of this project, and the plot never comes together into a believable or compelling narrative. It goes around in the same circle several times before ending abruptly.

UPDATE2: For a dissenting view, Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times loved it.

Although their antics are insanely entertaining, for once Hiaasen doesn’t let them run away with the plot. With Joey hovering as an avenging Fury, he keeps a tight focus on Chaz as he scrambles to escape Joey’s ghost, Red’s hit man, Karl’s pythons and all the critters waiting for him in the swamp. In the real world, life in the Everglades may indeed be on the verge of extinction. But so long as Hiaasen is free to fantasize, there’s a sense that justice — and humor — will prevail.

UPDATE3: Randy Michael Signor loves it not:

The most annoying thing, to me, is the waste of talent and the author’s contempt for his readers. Hiaasen ultimately does not trust his readers enough to challenge them by dropping the shtick, the tricks with smoke and mirrors, and applying his intelligence to fashioning serious characters learning serious lessons. I know every argument can be made that he’s taking on important issues and he educates a lot of people by writing a popular entertainment, but I don’t buy it. Glib is glib, no matter how fancifully it’s wrapped.

UPDATE4: Oline Cogdill gives it roses:

Skinny Dip jumps feet first into a sparkling pool of well-drawn characters, rich humor and a clever plot. Joey and Mick add a sense of realism and humanity to Skinny Dip. But it’s the villains who take center stage. Everyone knows a Chaz, though maybe not someone as extreme. Self-centered and amoral, he’s the guy who skates through life, cutting corners, doing what he pleases with little regard for others and believing he can talk his way out of anything. The author makes us wonder — just why isn’t being a jerk against the law?