By Carl Hiaasen
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
I love Carl Hiaasen. I’ve read more than half of his 11 novels, and liked each one unreservedly. “Skinny Dip” knocked me out; “Sick Puppy” bowled me over; “Strip Tease” — more, more! But “Nature Girl?” I could put it down. Sorry, Carl, this time I have reservations.
First, the story. Honey Santana, the title character, is a bit of a fanatic when it comes to nature, both ecological and human. She can’t abide people who pollute the environment or the quality of another person’s life. This being a Carl Hiaasen novel, Honey is, of course, a babe, albeit one with a few “issues,” as they say these days. One of those issues is that she’s bipolar, or, as they no longer say, manic-depressive. She won’t take her medication, however, which affects her and those closest to her, and not always for good.
The person most directly affected is her 12-year-old son, Fry: “Sometimes he believed that his mother was on the verge of losing her mind, and sometimes he thought she was the sanest person he’d ever met.” After her son comes her former husband, Perry, whom she left because he used to smuggle dope, an activity of which she strongly disapproves, even retroactively. To Fry’s dismay, she refers to him as “your ex-father.” Perry, you should know, is still carrying a heavy torch.
That’s pretty much it for the good guys, except for Sammy Tigertail, a true Native American in that he’s half Seminole and half white, but he doesn’t meet Honey until later, as do two strong women, one young and one not so, both of whom are also to be colored good.
Now for the bad guys. Principally there are two of them, and it’s hard to tell which one is worse, though their negative characteristics are quite different. The first is Louis Piejack, an aggressive slug of a human being who owns the fish market where Honey worked until the day he grabbed her right one without permission, whereupon she whacked him with a wooden mallet normally used for cracking stone crab claws and then, while he was floundering on the floor, stuffed a yellow-fin tuna down his pants, an action which, not too surprisingly, cost Honey her job.
Of equal negative weight is Boyd Shreave (Mr. Hiaasen has a way with, or a thing for, names, a habit which can get on your nerves.) Boyd is a low-life telemarketer who makes two near-fatal mistakes. One, he calls Honey during dinner, and two he loses his cool and curses her out when she says no to viewing a “ranchette” in Florida (where, as she sensibly tells him, she already lives). Infuriated, she decides to have her revenge.
Honey wheedles two airline tickets to Florida out of Perry, and then, after tracking Boyd Shreave down, phones him with the offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida and a stay at a “four-star eco-lodge” featuring an ecotour by kayak through the beautiful Ten Thousand Islands to view a fabulous (not-always-underwater) property for sale.
To Boyd, also a world-class slug, that not only sounds a lot better than Fort Worth where it’s currently 46 degrees, but it also means the chance to take, not his rich wife, but his mistress, Eugenie Fonda (“a cousin of Jane’s,” he thinks). Boyd, who obviously should know better, agrees, gets Ms. Fonda to agree, and the plot’s second paddle is in the water.
Honey’s plan is to get Shreave away from civilization and in an ecologically pristine setting read him the riot act for being such a jerk, which, in her seriously off-meds state she thinks will make him see the evil of his ways and promise never to be a dishonest telemarketer again.
But before that can happen, the plot, of course, thickens; in fact, it all but coagulates. The island she aims for happens to be occupied by the aforementioned Sammy Tigertail, who is “on the lam” because he thinks he killed a drunken tourist. (He didn’t, but he doubts the law will believe a half Seminole.) Sammy scares away all but one of a bunch of larking college kids, the intrepid one being a lovely young semi-goof named Gillian, who semi-falls for him and refuses to leave. Paddles number three and four.
But that’s not all. Entering stage left are Piejack, Honey’s former boss; Dealey, a private investigator hired by Boyd Shreave’s wife; various law-enforcement types; and, eventually, Fry and Perry, the two people who care the most for her and her welfare. Let the games begin. Call it “The Survivor” episode from hell. (Oh, wait, they’re all from hell.)
Now that’s a lot of characters, and, as usual, Carl Hiaasen juggles them with admirable skill, bringing them on and off stage (or off island) with breakneck speed and to fine comedic effect. But that doesn’t mean they’re interesting. And there’s the rub, at least for me. Piejack is so gross as to become off-putting, and Boyd Shreave is such a loser that it is hard to see why Honey, or his wife, or his statuesque mistress — or the author — would care about him in the first place.
You can’t help but like Fry, the son, and Perry, his “ex-father,” and Honey herself — what the heck, add Gillian, Fonda, and Tigertail — but you don’t really care if either one of the sleaze balls gets his comeuppance or not. I have to confess that I’m tired of book and movie writers who condescend to their readers and audiences by a mean-spirited presentation of their characters.
At times reading “Nature Girl” I got the same uncomfortable feeling I had sitting through the wine movie “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” in which Jack Nicholson played an actuary in the Midwest — a feeling that the makers of the movie were laughing at their creations, holding up to ridicule “people” who were flawed, but whose flaws qualified them for sympathy rather than scorn.
I kept thinking of Elmore Leonard’s books, and how comfortable I felt with the likes of Chili Palmer (“Get Shorty”) or Karen Cisco (“Out of Sight”), and, while I’m at it, how well their names worked for me, unlike “Piejack” and “Boyd Shreave.” Referring to the care with which he names his characters, Mr. Leonard once said, “In my novel, ‘Bandits,’ which is set in New Orleans, I originally named the main character Frank Matisse. I thought Matisse sounded like a New Orleans name, but he wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t open his mouth.
“And he acted too old. So I changed his name to Jack Delaney and then he wouldn’t shut up.”
All the Carl Hiaasen novels I’ve read up until now have made me look forward to the next one, except for “Nature Girl,” which gave me … pause. Sigh.
John Greenya is a Washington writer.