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Take up a date with speed

Published Sep. 29, 2005


By S.V. Date

Penguin Putnam, $22.95


S.V. Date is the latest graduate of the Carl Hiaasen School of Florida Novel Writing, and Speed Week suggests he's among the star pupils.

Hiaasen has minted a successful string of imaginatively twisted capers (from Tourist Season to Lucky You) by mining the weird world of life in South Florida. As a columnist for the Miami Herald, he's wallowing in material.

Date, a Tallahassee reporter for the Palm Beach Post, sets his first novel a little farther up the coast but, if anything, even deeper in the dark side of the Sunshine State _ in Daytona Beach.

Nick Van Horne's father made millions in the sport that made Daytona famous, auto racing. All that dough ought to make his heir's life easy, but Nick has problems with women.

He's jazzed about his hot new girlfriend, Cherry, the proprietor of a Boardwalk pool hall where customers are politely hustled. Cherry's work uniform may be a red thong bikini, but she's as ambitious as any stockbroker in a pinstripe suit. To Nick she simply seems like a Penthouse letter come to life, but then he's not very bright.

His stepmother, Joanna, is pressuring him for help in creating her dream, a theme park called RaceWorld, to be developed (where else?) on environmentally sensitive coastal land. His late father's imperious trophy widow makes him nervous, but she holds the purse strings on the family fortune, so he has to do her bidding.

Joanna's latest and most drastic demand is that he get rid of Barbie, his wife. Nick wants a divorce anyway _ he's infuriated that Barbie has left him and struck out in search of independence, running a little New Age paraphernalia shop near the beach, and he's preoccupied with Cherry.

But Joanna isn't talking about divorce. She's enraged that Barbie, a sweet soul despite her exposure to the Van Horne family, is pursuing a lawsuit against Volusia County to try to halt the idiotic but time-honored tradition of driving on the beach. Barbie wants to protect the nests of sea turtles, with which she feels a spiritual bond. If the suit succeeds, RaceWorld _ and its potentially enormous profits _ will be out of the question.

"Gentlemen don't kill their wives," Joanna tells Nick. "Gentlemen have them killed. Quietly."

Date's plot bears a clear resemblance to those in Hiaasen's books: a likable woman in peril, a nice but sometimes inept guy on her side (in this case Nick's attorney, Nolin, who switches sides after he falls in love with Barbie), a threat to Florida's environment, a lineup of greedy villains and a wild cast of supporting characters.

Date does a particularly nice job with that last group. How can you not dig a character like Randall Romer, a former state attorney, ex-Navy SEAL and mystical devotee of surfing, who protects what he considers his domain by painstakingly teaching a gigantic mako shark to devour the lunkheads who buzz around the beach on personal watercraft? Or Crawdad, a quintessential crusty Daytona biker and crafty businessman, whose entourage includes a sweet young blond girlfriend who always (and only) wears what at first glance seems to be a black leather bikini _ but is in fact a tattoo?

Date doesn't yet match Hiaasen's brio and polished style, but his plot charges like one of those Daytona racers, and he has the kind of warped sense of humor required to bring Daytona to tacky life. Speed Week is one swift little ride.

Colette Bancroft is a Times staffer.