Guilty Pleasure: The Work of Carl Hiaasen

Writers read books for a variety of reasons. They seek literary value, a good story, insight into the human condition, memorable characters, and the discovery of greater truths. I suspect, however, that every writer has his guilty pleasures. I’ve got mine.

During the early 1980s, I was in the hospital for abdominal surgery. My brother, while studying for his master’s degree at the University of Florida, discovered the work of Carl Hiaasen. My brother brought me Hiaasen’s debut novel, Tourist Season, to read while I recuperated. I laughed so hard I nearly popped my stitches. I was hooked.

Hiaasen is more than a guilty pleasure, though. He’s no pulp fiction writer. Hiaasen is one of the brilliant satirists of our time, a modern-day Mark Twain. Dubbed the Conscience of the Sunshine State, Hiaasen has written twelve novels, including Skin Tight, Double Whammy, Strip Tease, Sick Puppy, Native Tongue, and his most recent, the hilarious Star Island. The novel centers on a Britney Spears-type rock star who hires a double to stand in for her during her regular visits to rehab. He even collaborated with a cadre of other South Florida writers on a shared novel called Naked Came the Manatee, another treasure.

I’ve read all of Hiaasen’s novels, even his children’s books. He writes about a side of the Sunshine State you don’t see in the slick tourism ads. Hiaasen’s Florida is a crazy menagerie of sleazy developers, corrupt politicians, clueless tourists, snow bird retirees, garden-variety sociopaths, and militant environmentalists.

Hiaasen has a special knack for dialogue that crackles with humor and authenticity. He also has a talent for portraying the fuzzy line between good and evil. The phrase, “honor among thieves” comes to mind. His stories recognize we are all imperfect human beings and that cops and PIs and criminals and lowlifes suffer the same foibles.

I’ve always identified with Hiaasen because of his background as a newspaper reporter and columnist. I was a reporter for fifteen years and it got in my blood. I missed writing when I left the newspaper business. The transition from reporter to fiction writer is not easy. Hiaasen spoke about it in an interview with The New Statesman. “The one thing a lifetime in the newspaper business teaches you is pace—you spend all your time trying to make sure the reader’s going to finish what you’ve been writing…It affects not just the pace of the writing, but how you put together a scene. All the senses you use covering a news story are the same senses you use when creating a scene for a novel.”

The real world provides a rich inventory of bizarre stories and Hiaasen sees this is a challenge for fiction writers. In an interview with The Guardian, Hiaasen said, “The hardest thing for me, for anybody who writes satire or any kind or contemporary fiction, is to invent a scenario that doesn’t eventually come true, and if you’re writing satire, you don’t want to be behind the curve, but ahead of it. Sarah Palin. You couldn’t have invented a plausible character in fiction as outrageous, unqualified and unintentionally comical as she is.”

As a columnist for The Miami Herald Hiaasen noted that Florida provides plenty of grist for novels. “The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.”

Hiaasen has built characters around crazy stories he has come across in the newspaper. His characters are among the most interesting in fiction. Skink, who appears in several novels, is a former Governor of Florida who abruptly left office to live in the wilds and eat road kill. And by the way, he has a glass eye that he yanks out every now and then to scare people.  Another character juggled human skulls and still another, the memorable Chemo, sported a weed whacker for an arm.

You can’t make this stuff up. Oh, wait a minute. You can.

Do you have an author who is a guilty pleasure?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Guilty Pleasure: The Work of Carl Hiaasen

  1. I agree, I agree, I agree. I love Hiaasen’s work. He’s everything you describe and more. As a Floridian I am especially taken with his stories about the shenanigans that go on in South Florida – and he’s only exaggerating a little bit most of the time. It’s the wild west down here much of the time, with a cast of characters wandering by on any beach, or downtown intersection, that would make Hollywood drool.

    • Jamie,
      Yes! The amazing thing about Hiaasen is that the real stuff that happens in south Florida is wackier than the stuff he makes up. I met a bookstore clerk in Florida who told me Skink was based on Lawton Chiles, a reform-minded governor who was determined to clean up the swamp of corruption in Tallahassee only to leave office after one term in disgust. Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction.

      Regards,
      Chris

    • Jamie,
      Yes to all. Someone told me Skink was based on Lawton Childs, who tried to clean up the swamp in Tallahassee and left in disgust after one term as Governor. Truth really is stranger than fiction,

      Regards,
      Chris

      • Correction: Lawton Chiles served two terms on office and was barred by term limits from seeking a third term. He died of a heart attack in 1998.

  2. Tessa O'Sullivan

    Now I don’t think Hiaasen counts as a guilty pleasure. He’s talented and has an amazing sense of character, dialogue, and creates almost unbelievable situations that still ring plausible. Now if you told me Joan Collins or Us Magazine… you’d be truly admitting a guilty pleasure!

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