Monday, January 22, 2018
Books

Review: Hiaasen's columns satirize real Florida in 'Dance of the Reptiles'

Giant pythons and hungry alligators striking fear in Florida suburbs, Kim Kardashian releasing a public statement about the Casey Anthony trial, a developer chopping down 12,000 protected mangroves and claiming it was just a "terrible accident" that happened when he hired surfers to prune the trees. You might think that all sounds like a wacky Carl Hiaasen novel — and you would be half right.

Dance of the Reptiles is the latest from Florida native Hiaasen. He has written 13 bestselling novels for adults (Bad Monkey was the latest) and four for kids, books that have indelibly etched Florida's own brand of weirdness into the nation's consciousness. His other job, since 1985, is writing editorial columns for the Miami Herald, a position in which he serves as one of the sharpest, most relentless and funniest watchdogs of the state's environment, citizens and sanity. That work won him the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in 2010.

Dance of the Reptiles collects dozens of those columns, many of which support Hiaasen's claim that he doesn't have to make up the material for his fiction — he just gets it from the news.

In Florida, the news provides endless fodder for columnists as well — maybe more than they want. This is, after all, a state where we bulldoze wetlands and build subdivisions in flood zones, and then are surprised (and unprepared) when hurricanes wreak havoc; where we live perpetually on the brink of drought and yet give away oceans of groundwater to corporations that make enormous profits bottling it and selling it back to us; where our Legislature does everything to make life easy for the NRA and other lobbyists but wear price tags stapled to their lapels.

Those are just a few of the subjects Hiaasen addresses in these columns, which are drawn from the last 12 years or so and grouped thematically, under chapter headings like "Go Away," "Festival of Whores" and "Ready, Aim, Fire." Although some of them deal with national news (most of the chapter "Shock, Awe, and Swagger"), the lion's share deal with malfeasance and stupidity in the Sunshine State.

Reading many of these columns together, I was impressed anew with how solidly Hiaasen supports an argument. When he delivers an opinion, he doesn't bloviate — he dishes up the names, the numbers, the dates and statistics.

He also uses humor in a wide range of ways. Often his satire is a dash of salt in an otherwise serious essay. In a 2012 column about Florida's legislators proposing to drug-test every state employee except themselves, he quotes Rep. Jimmie Smith of Lecanto, who calls testing for lawmakers "political theater. . . . It was found to be unconstitutional to drug-test elected officials because it prevents us, as citizens, from having that First Amendment right."

Hiaasen's response: "Based on that fog-headed explanation, which not even Cheech could explain to Chong, Smith's urine should be the first to get screened."

In other columns, humor is his major strategy, as in one from 2010 responding to British Petroleum's ridiculous plan to stop the Deepwater Horizon leak by shooting it full of car tires and golf balls: "British Petroleum announced today that it has fired its top engineer for safety design and replaced him with Jody McNamara, age 12, a sixth-grade honors student . . ." The lad's solution involves " 'a super-long straw' and approximately 3,700 metric tons of Quaker oatmeal."

Although some say the satire practically writes itself in this state, Hiaasen raises it to a higher level. One caveat, though: Unless you have an intravenous drip of blood pressure meds, you might want to read just a few of these columns at a time. Good as they are, if you love Florida, devouring the whole bunch might make you so angry your head explodes like that giant python that tried, in a perfect Florida moment, to eat an alligator.

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