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Sick Puppy
Carl Hiaasen
Knopf, $25

by James Hynes

The popular novelist Carl Hiaasen began his writing career as an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald, and many of his virtues as a novelist are the virtues of a successful journalist: an ironic wit; a considerable gift for narrative; efficient and often pungent prose; and, perhaps most importantly, a capacity for cynicism and outrage in equal measure, often at the same time.Hiaasen particularly delights in the kind of shaggy dog story about powerful figures that journalists hear all the time and repeat in private among themselves, but rarely print, because they lack proof or fear the libel laws. I suspect that his inability to tell such stories as a journalist is at least part of the reason why he became a novelist in the first place. As a novelist he can get away with assertions that might be actionable if published in the Herald--for example, that the governor of Florida, at least in the novel under review, is deep in the pocket of lobbyists and developers. It’s not just Hiaasen’s considerable skill as an entertainer that makes his books so much fun; it may also be the winking implication that much of what he’s telling us is true--in spirit, if not in actual fact.

Sick Puppy,Hiaasen’s eighth novel, opens with powerful lobbyist Palmer Stoat (another of Hiaasen’s virtues is a gift for Dickensian onomatopoeia) shooting a sick, aging rhinoceros at a Florida "game park"--that is, a preserve where rich assholes go to kill more or less defenseless big game, often the wholly tame castoffs of zoos and circuses. On his way home from the "hunt," Stoat flings a Burger King carton out the window of his Range Rover, and so immediately incurs the wrath of Twilly Spree, a rich guy of a different variety. Cushioned by an inheritance, Twilly defends the environment as a sort of one-man Earth First!; outraged by Stoat’s littering on the freeway, Twilly sets out to offer a corrective to such behavior. He breaks into Stoat’s house, has a truck-full of garbage dumped on his car, and, when Stoat continues to litter, dognaps Stoat’s Labrador retriever and kidnaps, sort of, Stoat’s trophy wife, Desie.

In point of fact, Desie has come to despise her sleazy husband and goes with Twilly more or less willingly. She tells him about her husband’s professional efforts on behalf of a developer who wants to turn Toad Island, a near-wilderness Gulf Coast island, into a golf resort. Such development would inevitably decimate the island’s habitat. Twilly decides to use the dog as a hostage to stop the rape of Toad Island, setting in motion a series of events that can only be described as madcap.

As do Hiaasen’s other novels, Sick Puppy resists synopsis; perhaps its flavor is best evoked by highlighting a few of its large cast of characters. The developer, Robert Clapley, is so obsessed with Barbie dolls that he has persuaded two beautiful young Russian immigrants to go under the knife so that he might enjoy them as twin Barbies. The slick current governor of Florida, a former Toyota dealer named Dick Artemus, is counterpointed with Clinton Tyree, an eccentric former governor who was driven crazy by the tension between his own decency and the utter corruption of Florida politics. Tyree--a heroic serial character in most of Hiaasen’s books--now calls himself Skink and lives in a swamp, and late in the book he becomes an instrument of Hiaasen’s wrath at politicians, lobbyists, and developers. The colorful minor characters include state legislator Willie Vasquez-Washington, who claims various ethnicities at his political convenience; Mr. Gash, a frightening if rather inept hired killer who collects tapes of gruesome 911 calls; and a Republican call-girl. The wonderfully entertaining result is high-spirited satire, decked out in the trappings of a thriller: crosses and double-crosses, gunplay, hugger-mugger with bulldozers, and funny sex scenes.

The scenes that ring truest, however, are the ones about dealmaking, such as the scene in which Palmer Stoat negotiates his fee with the developer Clapley, or the one in which the wily car salesman/governor blackmails the crazy ex-governor into doing a bit of dirty work. In these scenes, the novelist and the muckraking journalist come together to open a window on the way that powerful men--and I do mean men--run the world out of sight of the rest of us. In this respect Hiaasen’s work resembles that of John Le Carré, who can wring more sheer drama out of men talking around a conference table than most writers can out of a gunfight.

But the presiding spirit here seems to be that of Evelyn Waugh, and that fact leads to a dilemma and a question. The dilemma is that Hiaasen seems to adopt Waugh’s view of human nature--that most people are either venal or naive or both. And yet the overt politics of the book, and of Hiaasen’s other books, is manifestly liberal--which, last time I checked, depends in part in a belief in the fundamental decency of people, if not their actual perfectibility. Hiaasen reserves his worst fates, and snidest wisecracks, for the Republicans, developers, and lobbyists, but even the good guys here are compromised in one way or another. The two environmentalists are crazy, and the two sympathetic women characters, Desie and Lisa June Peterson, the governor’s aide, are resigned to working covertly outside the system of power. Hiaasen’s outrage at the corruption of state politics and the blatant rape of a landscape in the interest of money is real and articulately expressed, but the overall effect of the novel is one of repressed despair. The comeuppance of the bad guys in Sick Puppy is hilarious and poetic--I believe it was Chekhov who said if you show a rhinoceros in the first act you must show it charging in the last--but in the end that comeuppance is a comic contrivance that belies the bitter honesty of much of what has come before.

So I come to my question: is it possible for a popular novel to have a workable politics? Does the very structure of such a novel, especially the requirement for a clear cut, if not necessarily happy, conclusion militate against the sort of realism that the overt politics of a novel like Sick Puppy wants to claim for itself? Can you write a novel that treats power and its exercise satirically, while simultaneously endorsing the possibilities of human decency on which progressive politics depends? Liberal readers are as entitled to wish-fulfilling entertainment as are Tom Clancy fans, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder if the anti-development message here is vitiated by the gleeful, and very entertaining, cynicism of the storytelling. In real life, of course, developers and the politicians they own aren’t so bumbling as they are here, and projects like the one that threatens Toad Island are brought down, if at all, in court, by committed organizations of activists, not by dognappers, crazy hermits, and enraged rhinoceroses. Not for a moment do I doubt Carl Hiaasen’s sincerity and passion; I can commend to the reader his magnificent anti-Disney screed, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World,the first thirty pages of which rival Swift for blistering wit and stylish invective. Perhaps a splendid entertainment like Sick Puppy is too thin a reed to bear these kinds of doubts, but as I finished the book, I just couldn’t help wondering if it’s really possible to be outraged and entertaining at the same time.

Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review



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