ROAD TRIP: Carl Hiaasen’s Florida

Carl Hiaasen audiobooks became a family favorite of ours long before Junior was born. Since my partner had worked at Disney, I checked out Native Tongue before we embarked on a long drive. Hiassen’s hysterically funny satirical take on Disney World and rapacious Florida developers clicked with her memories and we spent the rest of the trip laughing over bumbling mango-vole-thieves-turned-habitat-defenders. Junior is finally old enough to appreciate Hiaasen’s sly humor.

We love Carl Hiaasen’s books for his complex, believable characters, and the ludicrous situations they get themselves into because they just can’t help themselves. Who doesn’t know someone like this lady?

Mrs. Bonneville never buckled her seat belt, even though it was required by state law; an ardent libertarian, she opposed government meddling in all matters of personal choice.
— from Nature Girl (2006)

Every book he writes also contains a stock character of a smart and gorgeous long-legged woman in a floppy hat. In his books for adults, this lady will usually have a fling with the hero, but refuse to continue the association further because she is too smart for Hiaasen’s male characters. In Strip Tease, this lady is Erin, a stripper (previously employed as an FBI clerk and played by Demi Moore in the movie). My former boss (also a Hiaasen fan) and I are as far as I know the only people in America who went to see the movie version of Strip Tease because we loved the book. While Demi Moore’s character virtuously tries to organize the rest of the strippers she works with for better working conditions, Burt Reynolds turns in a fantastic comic supporting performance as the perverted senator who’s obsessed with her.

Luckily for long car rides, though, Hiaasen also writes YA novels. G-rated! With the same exuberant descriptions of Florida wildlife and oh-dear-I-know-these-people characters. But in these novels, the smart and gorgeous lady is the MOM.

While I’ve been away from this blog, we’ve been working our way through audiobooks of the Hiaasen YA catalog: Hoot, Chomp, Scat, and Flush. A fifth, Squirm, came out in September and we can’t wait for our next long car trip.

 A dastardly developer’s plan to wipe out a colony of endangered burrowing owls drives the plot of Hiaasen’s book   Hoot  , Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A dastardly developer’s plan to wipe out a colony of endangered burrowing owls drives the plot of Hiaasen’s book Hoot, Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Chomp, which details the adventures of a father-son team of animal wranglers hired to work on an Everglades adventure reality show, is my personal favorite. Mickey Cray, Wahoo Cray’s father, takes the job with reality-tv adventure show Expedition Survival! because the family needs money. Wahoo joins the shoot because he has concerns about his father’s impulsive nature, which has become even more pronounced since he received a concussion when a frozen iguana fell out of a tree onto his head. Surprise: Expedition Survival! in reality turns out to be markedly different from the hour fans see on TV. For starters, members of the cast and crew are not really Australian.

Take heed, you could be next in line for a concussion if you don’t watch out for falling iguanas. NBC news warns to be careful of frozen iguanas falling out of trees after a period of abnormally cold weather in Florida.

Flush, Junior’s favorite, stars a family working to keep their Keys town’s bay pollution free. Noah Underwood’s father is in jail for sinking the Coral Queen, the town’s gambling boat. He’s sure that "Dusty" Muleman, the Coral Queen’s owner, is dumping raw sewage from the boat’s toilets into the bay but hasn’t been able to prove his suspicions. “Every time Dusty empties her holding tank, it's like flushing a hundred filthy toilets into God's ocean!” Noah, his sister Abbey, the casino boat’s bartender Shelly, and a mysterious pirate who lurks in the bushes team up to vindicate Noah’s father and clear up the town’s waterways for good.

Scat, Junior’s second favorite, deals with a school field trip gone very wrong. An eccentric teacher goes missing amidst a swamp fire—and a Florida panther is in the vicinity. Students Nick Waters and Marta Gonzalez begin searching for their teacher when their school administration decides it’s better not to pursue Bunny Starch. I have to applaud Hiaasen because the characters don’t meet cute with the panther and have an “Ohhhh, isn’t it cute and adorable” moment.

You can see in this video how easy it would be to for Hiaasen to just write about panther kitten cuteness. This rescued Florida panther kitten was found abandoned and near death by biologists of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at just one-week-old. He weighed just 2.8 pounds upon arrival at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, and at the time of the video weighed more than 10 pounds, growing every day.

Instead, middle school student Nick Waters and the rest of the good guys keep their scent off a lost panther kitten as they work to reunite it with its mother. Meanwhile, everyone has questions. Is illegal swamp drilling going on? Will Duane Scrod aka “Smoke,” who took a pencil out of Ms. Starch’s fingers and ate it, ever return to class?

Hiaasen takes a huge risk in Hoot by making IHOP (or maybe Waffle House?) the villain. A “Mother Paula's All-American Pancake House” is slated for an empty lot in Roy Eberhardt’s new home of Coconut Grove, Florida. One creative act of vandalization after another hits the site. Alligators in the Port-a-Potties? Snakes with glittery tails all over the lot? Who doesn’t like pancakes? Roy meets another boy, Mullet Fingers, who shows him an endangered species—the burrowing owl—that lives on the site. What’s going on? Hoot also has a movie version, which is on our to-watch list.

One critic notes grumpily about the Hoot movie, “It would be a nice little family film if not for the fact that the young heroes commit felonies in the name of saving the environment.” Hiaasen’s kid characters arrive at clever solutions to problems when adults have tried and failed. Sometimes they go a bit rogue, but the winning solution in a Hiaasen book always happens when a character thinks their way out of a predicament.

Hiaasen’s books are hard to put down because you just can’t resist finding out what ludicrous idea unfolds next for his dimwitted villains. By the end, though, his lyrical descriptions of Florida wilderness will have sunk into your subconscious and turned you into a rabid environmentalist planning your next Florida vacation.

The bay was even smoother than the ocean—it looked like pale blue silk. We stopped at Bowlegs Cut, drifting out through the markers on a hard falling tide. Frigate birds soared overhead, and a pod of dolphins rolled past us, herding mullet.
— from Flush (2005)

Someday, Junior, I hope that you write like that.