by Carl Hiaasen
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
341 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Twilly Does Mind
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
At one point in Carl Hiaasen's Sick Puppy, Twilly Spree, a troubled young man on the lam, asks his co-conspirator to bring him something to read. "Anything by John D. MacDonald," he suggests.
How appropriate. Because if anyone is a direct literary descendant of the late creator of tarnished knight/beach bum/early environmentalist Travis McGee, it's Hiaasen.
Certainly, McGee's prescient tirades about the harm done by venal developers, real-estate agents, ethics-challenged lobbyists, corrupt politicians and other lower life forms to Florida's environment would find a willing audience among the disillusioned and often-shattered men who act as the protagonists in Hiaasen's screwball novels. Everything McGee once railed about has come to pass. The Everglades are drying up, wildlife is being bumped off at a bloodthirsty pace and the state's fragile ecology is being whizzed on, all in the name of profit and progress. Like John D. before him, Hiaasen is on a crusade, sending more crazy fools out to proudly tilt at windmills and rage at injustices
The difference, however, is that McGee, for all his bonhomie and sex-as-therapy lifestyle, was a pretty sober-minded and hard-eyed fellow, who displayed rather impressive amounts of competence. Hiaasen's heroes, on the other hand, tend to be dazed, bumbling dreamers with sometimes tenuous grasps on reality.
Certainly Twilly, the bored, 20-something college dropout/millionaire who acts as the ecological avenging angel in this new novel, has more than a few issues to work out. Such as anger management (he blew up his uncle's bank) and his troubled relationship with his estranged father, a real-estate agent who specializes in beachfront properties. And, of course, there's Twilly's obsession with saving the world from mankind...
In previous books, Hiaasen, a native Floridian and Miami Herald columnist, has done his bit to save the world, too. He has assailed the professional bass-fishing circuit (Double Whammy, 1987), the plastic surgery industry (Skin Tight, 1989) and the carpetbaggers who descend upon Florida like jackals in the wake of disaster (Stormy Weather, 1995). But his concerns about the rape of nature and its victims are always close to his heart. They run like a river through most of his work, whether he's dealing with the mysterious disappearance of a pair of blue-tongued mango voles from a cut-rate Disneyland wannabe nature theme park (Native Tongue, 1991) or the thousands of tiny chirping toads scheduled to die so that golf may flourish in his latest foray into the dark side of the Sunshine State.
You either laugh, or you cry.
This time out, Hiaasen sets his sights squarely on ecologically insensitive types. Payback can be a bitch, and in Sick Puppy, the author goes positively Old Testament on these folks, offering gonzo justice at its most ridiculous and sublime.
It all starts with a Burger King hamburger carton being tossed carelessly out the window of a moving car. No big whoops, maybe, but that's all it takes to attract the attention of Twilly, who's driving along behind. For Twilly this littering is a clear symbol of all that's wrong with the world. An empty cup, a wadded paper napkin and another hamburger carton soon follow. Seething with rage, Twilly follows the perpetrator's car, intent on teaching this "garden variety asshole" a lesson. The lesson consists of Twilly emptying about four tons of refuse out of a county garbage truck into the culprit's parked convertible BMW. Makes perfect sense, right?
You'd think the litterbug, Palmer Stoat, a slimy political fixer (Oops! I meant lobbyist), would get the hint, but noooo! It seems he's a slow learner. So Twilly initiates a series of ever-escalating strikes against Stoat. The first skirmishes seem harmless enough, childish even: breaking and entering, a little creative vandalism, stuff like that. But the stakes are raised dramatically when Twilly discovers that Stoat's latest project is to convince various greedy or inept politicians to approve a bridge building bill, the pivotal first step in a redevelopment scheme that will see tiny, barely-inhabited Toad Island dug up, plowed under and transformed into yet another swanky, high-priced golf course and condo complex. For Twilly, this can mean only one thing: war!
Stoat's a real piece of work, a pompous, arrogant, cigar-smoking would-be rainmaker with about as much conscience as a lug bolt and the annoying habit of quoting classic rock lyrics at inappropriate moments. Incorrectly, of course.
Yet he may finally have met his match. Twilly kidnaps Stoat's dog, Boodle, a flatulent and none-too-bright Labrador. Desie, Stoat's increasingly dissatisfied and rebellious trophy wife, soon follows. But both come to be fond of their bizarre young "abductor," throwing a few more curves into the already twisted storyline.
If many of Hiaasen's themes and concerns are lifted from MacDonald, his characters and plots are right out of a Marx Brothers flick. With a dash of Elmore Leonard thrown in the mix, just for grit. Hiaasen doesn't merely paint his characters in broad strokes -- I think he uses a roller. And let's admit it: These days nobody does the full-tilt gonzo boogie better than Hiaasen. Sick puppies, plural, is more like it.
The man behind the Toad Island plan is developer Robert Clapley, a baby-faced ex-drug smuggler who's discovered that peddling real estate in Florida is a far more profitable scam. In his free time, Clapley has another, more personal project -- surgically transforming two hookers from Eastern Europe into identical human Barbie dolls. The prostitutes, meanwhile, have become hooked on the aphrodisiac qualities of powdered rhinoceros horn.
Worried that Twilly may be jeopardizing the golf course/condo deal, Clapley calls in a few political favors from Richard Artemus, Florida's charming but ineffectual governor, a brown-nosing former Toyota dealer. Rightly wary of the governor's ability to handle the situation, Clapley also dispatches a former business associate called Mr. Gash, a sadistic punk hit man, to dispose of Twilly and anyone else who gets in the way. With his penchant for prerecorded bootleg 911 calls and the use of live rats as an interrogation tool, Mr. Gash sets off for Toad Island to intercept Twilly.
Adding to this crazy cast are the toxic-waste specialist who brings his work home one time too many, the cigar club hooker who only does Republicans, the construction crew foreman who fears squirrels are after his testicles and an unhappy, rather alcoholic biologist who's discovered that he's sold his soul to the devil. The darnedest things just seem to happen to these folks. But then, what do you expect from a place where dung beetles and Double-Jointed Vampire Barbies, rectal stigmata and asthmatic rhinos are par for the course?
The greatest, most outrageous and most out-there character of them all, though, making his triumphant return after appearances in several previous Hiaasen novels, is Clinton Tyree, a.k.a. "Skink." The deranged former governor of Florida and present-day one-eyed, shower-cap-wearing, roadkill-eating swamp-rat -- now living somewhere in a hijacked NASCAR racer -- Skink is not above a few acts of eco-terrorism himself. Or expressing himself in his own inimitable fashion. After a messenger from Governor Artemus pleads with him to track down Twilly, Skink politely declines. "Now you may return to Tallahassee, my large Negro friend," he says, "and advise the governor to go fuck himself, repeatedly and without lubricants, at my behest."
Twilly would approve. Travis, too, might offer a thumbs-up.
Yet even as all of these loony-toons and the myriad plots kaleidoscope around him, lobbyist Stoat remains, as always, blissfully unaware. He does, however, have a hot-tub epiphany of sorts:
Slowly, he looked up, beyond the sordid tumble of yowling flesh in the Jacuzzi, toward the tranquil gem blue of the Atlantic. What's happening to this country of ours? Stoat wondered ruefully.
Stoat is far too full of himself to ponder stuff like this for very long, but it's a question well worth asking.
If there's a fault to be found in this book, it's one of familiarity. Hiaasen has worked this recipe before, though rarely with such apparent glee. To anyone familiar with his novels, the conclusion -- full of high-powered weaponry, alcohol, canine over-enthusiasm and human hubris -- is as inevitable, and even perversely logical, as it is outrageous and audacious. And yet, yes, it is ultimately satisfying. To just say that the good guys win the day isn't really saying anything at all. Sure, Lady Justice gets served, but it's the off-menu, little extra-somethings that Hiaasen dishes up here that are the real treats, as always. As a little lagniappe to his loyal readers, Hiaasen even ends his story with what looks like the start of a beautiful friendship, or at least the passing of a torch.
Still, a tale well told tale is a tale well told, no matter how many times you've heard it. And a message worth hearing is always a message worth hearing. "And really," Hiaasen writes, "that was the most that Twilly ever hoped for, that the bastards would get the message. Most of them did."
Or as Twilly explains to Boodle, "Justice, boy. That's all it is."
Like I said before, you either laugh or you cry. Fortunately, with Sick Puppy, anyone who has a heart can do both. | February 2000
KEVIN BURTON SMITH is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media. He lives in Montreal, and he doesn't litter. Ever.