Remember the big speech at your high school graduation?
Yeah, me neither. But if it had been the speech in Carl Hiaasen’s new book, Assume the Worst: The Graduation Speech You’ll Never Hear, it would have made an impression.
Hiaasen couldn’t have given the speech at my graduation in Tampa, since he was still in high school himself, on the other side of Florida. But young people graduating from high school or college this year can count themselves lucky if someone gives them this book as a gift.
Hiaasen is both the bestselling author of Razor Girl and 13 other wacky crime novels set in Florida and an award-winning journalist at the Miami Herald, where for decades he has been writing kick-ass columns — one of the three books collecting them is titled Kick Ass — on the environment, political corruption and other topics.
Both of those occupations require him to cultivate a certain cynicism, and that quality is what sets Assume the Worst apart from the average rose-colored-lens graduation gift book.
Hiaasen notes on the first page that graduation speakers are supposed to offer "encouragement and inspiration.
"That’s not what you need. You need a warning."
He ticks off some of the usual platitudes served up in graduation speeches and trashes them. Live each day as if it’s your last? "As wise and appealing as this might sound," he writes, "it’s actually terrible advice. If you live every day as if it’s your last, you won’t accomplish a damn thing. ... Spending all your waking hours doing only what feels good is a viable life plan if you’re a Labrador retriever, but for humans it’s a blueprint for unemployment, divorce and irrelevance."
Trying to find goodness in everyone is a waste of time, he writes. "If it requires the psychological equivalent of a metal detector to locate somebody’s true self, then they’re not worth the trouble."
As for that baloney about not being quick to judge other people: "Are you kidding? If you don’t learn how to judge others — and judge fast — you’ll get metaphorically trampled from now until the day you die. ... Your future colleagues will judge you, your future loan officers will judge you and your future spouse’s family will judge you. Get used to it, and tune yourselves to judge back."
Hiaasen might protest that he has no easy secret to happiness to reveal: "If you’re searching for a spiritual pathway to serenity, ask your yoga teacher. Or maybe buy a puppy."
But it turns out that like many cynics he’s really a softie, especially about young people. In addition to his books for grownups, he has published five novels for young readers. He began writing them for his own kids, and in an interview a few years ago he told me that youngsters became his favorite readers. "One of the things I discovered is their great sense of humor, their sense of satire," he said. "They love irreverence, they love to see grownups brought down to size."
Assume the Worst is built for those readers, and it’s enhanced by original illustrations by the great Roz Chast, a mainstay of the New Yorker for her inimitable cartoons and herself a terrific author (Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?).
Hiaasen might be justifiably cynical about the state of the world, but Assume the Worst makes clear that if there’s hope, he finds it in those young people he’s aiming for with the book.
"The profession I chose — journalism — wouldn’t exist if young people didn’t believe change was possible, even in the most harrowing and soul-sapping of times."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.