Thursday, July 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #198: Dance of the Reptiles by Carl Hiaasen

There's just something special about Florida. Sure, other states are as corrupt, crime-riddled, and full of slimy politics -- Louisiana, Illinois, and my own state of New Jersey can take good runs at that dubious distinction -- but Florida is always flamboyantly horrible, the kind of place where bribes aren't even hidden, the dead vote regularly, and the criminals believe in their own PR.

It's the kind of place that keep throwing up stories that would be unbelievable if they weren't so well-sourced. (There's a reason why there's a Twitter feed for Florida Man, and not for, say, Wisconsin Man.) And that kind of bizarre, crazy news needs a special kind of writer to make sense of it.

Luckily, Florida has Carl Hiaasen. And not just as a novelist, though that's how he's best known -- Hiassen has been a working newspaperman for the Miami Herald for more than three decades now, doing investigative reporting and writing a regular column about those only-in-Florida stories.

There have been three collections of Hiaasen's columns so far -- Kick Ass, Paradise Screwed (which I have been reading, very slowly, for about a dozen years now), and now Dance of the Reptiles, which came out as a Vintage paperback original at the beginning of this year. Reptiles covers roughly the last dozen years -- two terms of Bush the Second and one of Obama the Unlikely, though Hiaasen's political columns generally aim at a closer seat of government than DC.

As most people would be able to guess from his novels -- though a couple of dozen reviews on Amazon already show how bad reading comprehension has gotten these days -- Hiaasen cares deeply about ecological issues, and particularly hates the continued destruction of Florida's natural landscapes (even when those are what you or I would call swamps), which means he's particularly annoyed by Florida's developers. In fact, he's pretty dependably liberal on most subjects -- concerned more about public welfare than law 'n' order, against even the wars with flags waving really vehemently, not fond of the idea of oil drilling near his shores (and even less happier when the oil spill he expected actually happens due to BP's incompetence), and more willing to see new gun laws than most guys who have both a rifle and a shotgun.

If you can't go along with at least half of that -- if you think oil companies should be allowed to drill a short way offshore, that new buildings are vastly better than a clump of trees and dirt, that invading Iraq was a great idea, that money really is speech, that we've got too many animals anyway, and that our courts are too lenient on crime by "those people" -- then you will not enjoy Dance of the Reptiles at all, and should look elsewhere for amusement.

Hiaasen isn't doctrinaire, and he's not all that left-wing -- he writes in the rabble-rousing mode of a newspaper columnist, and isn't any kind of elitist -- but he does come down on one particular side of a lot of political questions, and most of the politicians that he particularly singles out for scorn have a (R) after their names. He's a throwback in some ways, to an earlier generation of columnists -- led by Mike Royko -- who were deeply populist back when that wasn't political code for right-wing. Even his anti-developer pieces are as much about sprawl and rising taxes and how new developments never pay for themselves as they are about preserving manatees and mangroves -- he knows what regular guys care about, because he's basically a regular guy himself.

So that's who he is, and what's he's doing here. Dance of the Reptiles collects a hundred of so columns, nearly all of which see Hiaasen having found something to loathe and excoriate. Many of them were the big news stories of their day: hanging chads, Terry Schiavo, George Zimmerman. The rest are local Florida stories, which means bizarre, unseemly, audacious, and/or ridiculous. And all of those pieces are amusing: each one will raise at least a chuckle or a head-shaking wry smile, and some more than that.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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