Pink pearls, pythons and a philandering president add up to a rather unusual Palm Beach social season in Carl Hiaasen’s riotously funny new novel, Squeeze Me.
Hiaasen’s other novels have been set in Florida locales known for outrageous behavior, like Miami and Key West. This time, he proves there’s plenty of weirdness to be found even in “gilded, fussy Palm Beach.”
A native Floridian, Hiaasen has worked for most of his adult life for the Miami Herald, for which he writes an award-winning, take-no-prisoners column. He knows and loves Florida and hates what has been done to it as much as anyone I know of, and those passions shape his razor-sharp satirical fiction.
Squeeze Me is Hiaasen’s 15th novel for adults; he’s also written half a dozen books for kids, including the Newbery Award winner Hoot. He has published several collections of his columns, a memoir, a nonfiction book about the Disney empire and a gift book for graduates, Assume the Worst, illustrated by Roz Chast.
Squeeze Me opens on a January night at a charity gala at the Lipid House in Palm Beach. One attendee leaves her $50,000 table and several guests and wanders off into the grounds. By the time her tipsy friends realize she’s missing, all that’s found on the bank of the koi pond is her beaded clutch, “her martini glass and a broken rose-colored tab of Ecstasy.”
The missing woman is Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, twice widowed and hugely rich at age 72. Police drag the koi pond and review surveillance videos, but Kiki Pew and her striking necklace of rare pink pearls (harvested from Queen conchs) seem to have vanished without a trace.
A few days later, a young woman named Angie Armstrong is summoned to the club. She runs a one-person “critter-removal company, Discreet Captures.” Usually clients want raccoons wrestled out of their attics, but this time what the very nervous club manager wants her to pull out of a tree is one of the largest Burmese pythons she’s ever seen. This one is “deep into a post-meal stupor” and has an unusually large lump in its midsection.
Floridians know that Burmese pythons are a spectacularly successful invasive species. In the past few decades, the snakes, which can grow to be 20 feet long or more, have nearly wiped out the native creatures of the Everglades; they’ve been known to eat alligators. Hunting them has barely made a dent. The only thing that has kept them from spreading northward is that they can’t tolerate cold. But if the climate warmed up — oh, wait.
This specimen’s food coma makes it fairly easy for Angie to decapitate it and carry it off to her storage freezer to await a biologist’s dissection. She hasn’t heard about Kiki Pew’s disappearance, so she’s untroubled by the lump in the snake — until someone breaks in and steals the frosty reptile.
Soon Kiki Pew’s body — having been removed from the python — is found, and one of those pink pearls leads to Diego Beltrán, an innocent undocumented immigrant, being blamed for her death because, really, who wants to admit there are killer reptiles in Palm Beach?
The case becomes particularly high profile, and Diego is a convenient scapegoat, because Kiki Pew is a founding member of a group of wealthy widows called the Potussies (a cleaned-up version of their more vulgar name) who are ardent fans of the president of the United States and members of his private club in Palm Beach, here called Casa Bellicosa.
Although it’s clear who they are, Hiaasen refers to the POTUS and FLOTUS only by their Secret Service code names. His is Mastodon, which he loves because it sounds tough. “On only his second day in the White House, the President had ordered his chief of staff to arrange a trip to the National Zoo for a close-up look at a real mastodon. The chief of staff wasn’t brave enough to tell the President the truth, so he cooked up a story that the zoo’s beloved mastodon herd was on loan to a wildlife park in Christchurch, New Zealand.”
Her code name is Mockingbird, and she is in her own way as formidable a woman as Angie, though not nearly as likable as the wildlife wrangler. The two are the book’s main characters whose separate stories will collide.
In the meantime, Mockingbird is courting danger by having an intense affair with her buff Secret Service agent. Mastodon is unlikely to notice, given how busy he is with the string of strippers he passes off as nutritionists, but there are prying eyes everywhere at Casa Bellicosa.
There are also more pythons showing up in Palm Beach. It might almost be plausible for them to be found in people’s backyards, but they’re turning up in bakery trucks and bikini boutiques.
If you’re a longtime Hiaasen fan, you might smell the roadkill-tinged aroma of his longest-running and most beloved character, a former Florida governor turned “vagabond saboteur” called Skink. He’s been avenging wrongs done to Florida for so long that his sidekick and protector, a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper named Jim Tile, is now in assisted living. But the pair are still afflicting the comfortable in creative ways.
All this leads to a raucous finale at the Commander’s Ball, a celebration of Mastodon’s ego that includes a performance of Big Unimpeachable You by the surviving Potussies, a disfiguring tanning bed accident, just a touch of LSD and, of course, pythons. Lots and lots of pythons.
By Carl Hiaasen
Knopf, 352 pages, $28.95