Carl Hiaasen: Skinny Dip

Carl Hiaasen: Skinny Dip

For the environmentally conscious in South Florida, protecting the Everglades from ruthless developers and polluters is a top priority. But for comic crime novelist Carl Hiaasen, the region's continued existence is necessary for metaphorical purposes. In a region of butterfly ballots and corruption so deep that the dead once voted for mayor, what could be more geographically apropos than a seething, murky bog crawling with blood-sucking mosquitoes and poisonous snakes? Hiaasen's Skinny Dip, a confident and determinedly wacky piece of Southern grotesquerie, includes long editorial passages about restoring the rapidly diminishing Everglades. But Hiaasen can be forgiven for holding fast to the area's only chance for salvation, not to mention the primordial ooze that gives his fiction life.

Skinny Dip could be described as a murder mystery without a murder, since one of its funniest running gags is that its characters can't kill each other, no matter how diligently they try. In the opening scene, sleazy marine biologist Chaz Perrone grabs his wife Joey by the ankles and tosses her over the edge of a cruise ship, leaving her to get sucked away in the Gulf Stream or chewed up by sharks and other sea creatures. But clinging to a bale of Jamaica's finest, Joey drifts toward a private island owned by retired cop Mick Stranahan, who rescues her and, with a little persuasion, agrees to her plan to torment her scheming husband from beyond the grave. As they soon discover, Chaz has been using his position as a state biologist to fake water-sample results for millionaire cracker Red Hammernut, whose farming operation siphons illegal phosphorous runoff into the Everglades.

As always, Hiaasen surrounds the main players with a wacky supporting cast, most memorably the hirsute bodyguard Tool, whose ape-like doltishness masks a surprisingly insistent moral center. Hiaasen's weakness for overbearing quirkiness comes through in a few minor details, like the bullet lodged in the crack of Tool's ass, or the medicinal patches (swiped from an elderly cancer patient) he sticks on shaved spots on his back. Hiaasen also goes too far in making Chaz terminally feckless: Not only is he transparently soulless and inept, but his prowess in bed—the one feature that kept his marriage with Joey alive—evaporates in a series of pained sexual encounters.

But Skinny Dip thrives when Hiaasen and his heroes let their prankster spirits run amok. Being dead has privileges that Joey infectiously enjoys, from minor tricks like sneaking into the house and yanking Chaz's beloved George Thorogood CDs to a blackmail plot carefully calibrated to drive him to the brink of insanity. A weak, whoring, Hummer-driving polluter who can't even kill people right, Chaz is just a straw man, but Hiassen has riotous fun burning him to the ground.

More Book Review