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Kicking around Florida's foibles


By S.V. Date

(Putnam, $24.95, 309 pp)


There was weeping and gnashing of teeth after Election Day, and I'm not just talking about the Democrats. Comedians across the land were devastated by the relatively glitch-free voting process in Florida _ heck, we even knew who had won most races the same night. No more Florida electorate to kick around anymore.

This uncharacteristic competence may prove to be a problem for Florida novelists, too, at least those of the Carl Hiaasen "We don't have to make up this stuff because the state is so crazy" school. Earlier this year, Tim Dorsey built the plot of Orange Crush around a wacky Florida gubernatorial election with a razor-thin vote margin, and now S.V. Date does the same in Black Sunshine.

As the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Palm Beach Post, Date has a rich field of Florida politics to mine, and he has some wicked fun with it. Murphy Moran, a former Republican political consultant who has taken early retirement to live aboard his sailboat, Mudslinger, is pulled back into the fray when the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Ramsey MacLeod, calls in a favor.

To help out the uncharismatic but admirable MacLeod, Moran sets sail. He's heard rumors about Republican party boss Farber LaGrange's sailing yacht Soft Money, rumors that the young women LaGrange calls Victory Hostesses are shedding various articles of clothing at sea according to how much cash male guests donate to the GOP. Ten thousand makes a bikini top vanish. . . . All Moran needs is a photo or two.

The rumors are true, but that's not the half of it. Aboard the yacht for this voyage are two sons of a legendary Florida politician, one of whom is the Republican candidate. Byron "Bub" Billings is a failed businessman, a middle-aged boy, a bumbler who can't even read a cue card (sound familiar?) but boy, do people like him. His younger brother, Percy, is taller, handsomer, a whole lot smarter and has worked his tail off to become governor. Guess who the party picked? Bub polls better.

But there's a problem. Oil magnate Link Thresher has poured millions into Bub's campaign, but Bub is so thoroughly clueless he doesn't realize he's being elected so oil companies can sink wells in the gulf up and down the Florida coast. He makes the awful mistake of answering a question honestly, and now LaGrange and Thresher have decided to kill him. And Percy has agreed _ as long as he gets to run in Bub's place.

As LaGrange and Percy mournfully announce Bub is lost at sea after falling overboard (and Percy is stepping into the campaign), Bub is recovering aboard the Mudslinger after Moran pulled him out of the drink. Bub's not sure who pushed him overboard, but he knows someone did, and he and Moran fear revealing he's alive will provoke a deadlier attack.

And they think those mysterious missives about campaign finances they're getting from someone who calls herself "GOP Gal" have something to do with the whole ugly mess.

LaGrange and Thresher have an ace up their sleeves: thousands of spoiled ballots waiting to be deployed in whatever county needs its votes adjusted. But the ballots are in the hands of Secretary of State Clarissa Highstreet, a hellion in high heels who's had more plastic work than Barbie, and they have to stay on her good side.

Black Sunshine booms along its twisted course merrily for a while, but the last quarter of the book goes a bit adrift. A slow-motion chase involving the increasingly disabled Soft Money and Mudslinger starts to read like a primer on rigging sails and handling lines. It sounds as if Date's fallen in love with sailing, an understandable passion, but there are pages where you just want him to belay all those halyards and genoas and get back to the gleefully nasty story.

Colette Bancroft is a Floridian staff writer.