Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Willie, Dick, Stoat and Skink

Sick Puppy
I love being home with children. I like reading children's books aloud, and cuddling together in the hammock, and making funny little projects (most recently, a magnetised puppet theatre in a shoebox). I like being able to sit down for half an hour in the middle of the day and have a doze in a chair; and I love being able to make children overjoyed by buying blueberries, or helping them make a cake, or sending them out to pick grapes and tomatoes from the garden.

But when the baby wakes three times in the night, the two year old is testing all the boundaries, and the five year old's attitude is extreme, well... On those days, I go by the advice of an older friend of ours who has four children - open a bottle of wine with dinner - and then look for something to restore my shattered good humour.

Sometimes, it's a silly video. There's nothing like an Inspector Clouseau movie, some sloppy eighties nostalgia (Roxanne, When Harry met Sally, Romancing the Stone), or a bit of Buster Keaton, to make me laugh.

And sometimes, it's a good book. Top of the list for laughter at the end of the day is Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen is a journalist based in Florida, and he draws on years of experience to write his madcap novels. Sadly enough, the premise of his books - that the natural world is being destroyed by obscene greed - is the truth. Slimy politicians are more corrupt than our worst imaginings. Developers and lobbyists weasel their way into the corridors of power, distributing money and favours left right and centre. The natural world is desecrated. But what makes Hiaasen's books so much fun is the way it all unravels.

In Sick Puppy, we meet the worst kind of lobbyist. Palmer Stoat will do any job, as long as the money is right. He is utterly amoral, and utterly bewildered by anyone who attempts to draw attention to his misdoings. His current job is to ensure the development of an otherwise untouched Gulf island, which will involve wholesale environmental destruction. To smooth the deal, he has to locate an endangered black rhino so that a pair of Barbie lookalike twins can snort the powdered horn. Unfortunately for him, he crosses paths with a mad eco-terrorist, Twilly Spree, and the mayhem descends. Characters include a hooker who will only service Republicans; a friendly Labrador retriever being mailed bit by bit through the post; a carload of dung beetles; and a swamp-dwelling ex-governor who emerges in order to carve a message with vulture beaks into the current governor's buttocks.

What more can I say?

Interestingly enough, hookers, drugs, violence and all, Hiaasen's novels are deeply moral. It's just that the moral characters tend to be pole dancers (Strip Tease) or collectors of human skulls (Stormy Weather). He reserves his scathing attitude, and most vicious punishments, for white collar developers, politicians, and ad-men. Fair enough, I say.

The villains are sexually depraved psychopaths in nice suits; the good guys are usually ambivalent about their role, often nerdy, and more than a little odd. Overall, the books are chaotic, riotous, violent, and laugh out loud funny. And they are satirical. Hiaasen vividly illustrates a society gone mad, lusting after no end of money, property, and power. The stories are thrilling partly because they imagine a world in which rapacious development might be halted by a few determined individuals; and corrupt perpetrators are punished in satisfyingly gory ways. Would that we had more eco-terrorists, willing to take drastic action to thwart wholesale destruction. Tamar Valley, anyone?

> Carl Hiaasen Sick Puppy (London: Pan, 2000); Strip Tease (London: Black Swan, 2005); Stormy Weather in The Carl Hiaasen Omnibus 2 (London: Picador, 2005).

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