Carl Hiaasen is right, Florida’s a victim of its own geography. Always has been, and it's truer today than ever. Did you watch the evening news every night for months coming to you live from the Gulf, black oil spewing into the pristine blue water? Dangling off the end of the country; a land to itself; bounded by water; choked thick with tropical flora, fauna, and opportunity; La Florida has always been more remote, more unlikely, more unfamiliar, more colorful, more exotic. More alluring. And with each degree drop in latitude, the truer that is.
In fact, Carl describes the sunshine state as “a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout.” It’s always been the case, so I couldn’t sum it up better than when he says, “Florida’s history is so rich with sleaze.”
Florida has always drawn adventurers, dreamers, gangsters, fugitives, and rogues alike – and still does. Adventurers like grandfathers C.A. Hiassen and Cmdr. John Rodgers; dreamers like Ponce de Leon and Henry Flagler; gangsters like John Dillinger and the Ashley Gang; fugitives like runaway slaves and outlaw Seminoles; but also rogues, like, like… well, just aim a glance toward the courthouse, legislature, country club, or Carl’s Miami Herald columns for likely candidates.
Better yet, for full-on slimy rascals, look to Carl’s novels, for herein lie delicate portraits of emblematic scoundrels in this fountain of the bizarre. And if you’re in Florida long enough you’ll appreciate that – beyond what most of the world imagines – his is, in fact, a light pen. As he says himself, “Nothing that happens in my books, no matter how twisted, transcends the reality of south Florida.” Yeah, reality is much meaner, with less conscience. Much uglier, less conclusive. Less comprehensible.
A shadowy aside here: Did I mention the dark attraction of countless impenetrable jungles, swamps, caves, coves, and islands? How captivating for sinister ill-doers, don’t you think? They bury so many secrets so well. A body can actually lay just ten feet off a busy road and still not be detected for months, years even.
Yes, stay long enough and you realize anything bathed in our golden sun seems possible; both worthiness and wickedness glitter, shine, and tempt. Indeed, rich possibility floats on the tropical breeze, riding the velvet scent of frangipani. For those new to Florida – from Spanish Conquistadors discovering a new world, to Reconstruction carpetbaggers dismembering ruins, to junk bond kings playing Seminole Bingo, to Wall Street Ponzi schemers building card houses, South American condo developers reaching for the sky, and oil barons crooning, "Drill, Baby, drill!" – Florida reeks of the supreme aphrodisiac: Money.
Newcomers come south and see resources to be handily exploited, Easy Street to be merchandised, subdivisions and golf courses to be built, riches to be reaped, even in lean times. And more come every year, sadly now more than 90% of our residents possess no sense of the place they’ve plopped down in. Carl calls them “the human sludge factor,” clogging paradise.
For the few of us born on Florida’s native soil and reared by her quiet swamps, beaches, and pine flats, we see treasures to be held close and protected from the marauding hordes. For us it is the intensity and insanity and depth of these ravagers which makes them the ultimate criminals, thoughtlessly murdering the very life force of our Mother Florida. Come to Florida, hit the beach, get a tan, spend your money, but for heaven’s sake, when you’re done, get the hell back home, and leave Florida to Floridians.
(I warned you we tend toward eco rants.)
As a Seminole friend once so philosophically deadpanned as I railed against slash-and-burn outsiders, “They shat in their nest up north till it’s a fucked-up shithole, so they’ve come to our beautiful nest, and now they’re shitting it up, too. No wonder we’re pissed off.”
“I don’t grow where bananas don’t grow.” The Florida gal tossed the words up into the cold Oregon air as casually as she would her hair, confetti, or a salad.
The Oregon guy, puzzled, pushed to understand why she would live in such a foreign place (Florida) – a place he’d never been, a place unknown and unimaginable, a place as mystifying as she. “But you can work anywhere.”
“But I’m a Floridian.”
Two years later when her heart was stolen, and she had her bags packed and boxes stacked for the lovely Pacific Northwest; and she had every intention of replacing her pink flip-flops with lined leather boots; and he had, indeed, appreciated the overblown, overgrown, glorious Florida for himself; the Oregon guy poked at the perplexity again, just to be sure, “Why move? You’re not happy here.”
Her silence dragged into thorny seconds.
He patted her hand. “I know, Sweetie.”
She stammered, “But, but… I love you.”
He pulled her hand to him and kissed her fingers. “I love you, too. But you don’t bloom here; you don’t dream; you don’t write. You grow in Florida.”
Yup, the Florida gal is me. And, yeah, such a guy you don’t let slip through your grip; you marry him. And, yes, he lives in Oregon, and I live in Florida – most of the time. Sure, life with a continent between us is complex, but life is good, very good. Florida nurtures me; we nurture each other. We both grow.
How does it make you feel when you see the acres of green woods where you climbed oaks, picked berries, forged friendships, reaped independence, and stole your first kiss, wholly laid bare, destined to be yet another gray, cloned shopping mall?
When you drive past the lake or river where you cannonballed off the dock with your freckled little brother and see the “Polluted – No Swimming” signs, what runs through your head?
Do you feel cheated? Topsy-turvy?
When you see regal wildlife besieged, losing their struggle to simply survive?
Embittered? Ashamed? Cynical?
Why should you care?
Ah, but you do.
What happens inside you, this caring you, when you see your beloved world around you, your home, ravaged and torn? Shoveled and scarred? Scratched, scraped, and scrapped? Platted, plotted, parceled, and dug? Chewed and spit out, asphalted and privatized? Mile after mile after mile of it entombed in concrete? Where is the native dirt?
Does it rile you? Do you choke down the scorching desire to scream?
We Native Floridians live with a wail permanently stuck in our throats.
Who can we rely on to sooth our battered tropical souls?
Who can anyone rely on?
Who, who can scream for us all, in such a way that millions hear the whispered message even through their own laughter? Who …?
Can it be you, Carl Hiaasen?
ON THE EDGE
Young Carl explores his Broward County neighborhood after school, ocean waves not far, jungles easily at hand, wild blackberries within reach, dragonflies and lightning bugs about, sometimes armadillos and snakes, too, an inquisitive boy’s playground, with the gigantic, primeval, mysterious Everglades looming to the West. He’s antsy sitting in school. The windows are thrown open, fans whirling and beating the thick air, as he listens to the chirp and buzz of early summer emerging outside the window, calling him to come. The inquisitive boy listens and he hears… bulldozers.
He’s blonder, wirier, and a year younger than his school chums, devouring Hardy Boys books (plus anything irreverent he comes across), fighting for notice, scrambling for voice, witnessing development, suppressing outrage, exploiting humor, and by the time he reaches high school he learns he can write and he lets his two-cents’-worth fly.
At U of F he majors in journalism, following his pen and his conscience. The books of Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, and John D. MacDonald inspire the inquisitive young man to follow them. After a quick two-year stopover in Cocoa, reporting on central Florida’s plights and scrapes and space shots, he returns to the South Florida he knows and loves, landing at The Miami Herald. His sharp pen is appreciated and he will stay for decades.
As a newspaperman he gleans details and clues from the dirty underbelly of Florida life. He crawls and snuffles around in the dirt and reports the stories he digs up. He discovers working for a big-city newspaper is like nothing else; he gains years of experience in days. It is grueling and aggravating. He also finds it’s sad as hell, because so many stories end so badly, or sadder yet, have no ending at all.
He also learns journalism is a terrific education for a young writer, teaching him how to write fast, how to write tight, even how to write on days when he doesn’t feel like writing. He gathers how the world works, how people really talk, how people really act. He’s introduced to scores of real-life characters who could walk out of the pages of a novel. He goes to places that he thought only existed in movies. He sees patterns, triggers, and motives where others don’t. He discovers all the skills required of a good reporter, all those powers of observation, are required of a novelist as well, and that he has acquired them. Plus, he realizes he has the good fortune of working in South Florida, one of the weirdest, most screwed-up places on the planet, providing endless grist for his storytelling mill.
He writes stories, columns, books. One bleeds into another. Writing them is a socially-acceptable outlet for his fervor. Without them, he feels he would end up in jail, or negotiating to stay out, or… well, who knows?
With each year his indignation pushes his tongue harder against his cheek. Brought up on the overblown style of the South, he shoves his writing over the top. He digs for that perfect, untouchable sentence. In fiction he finds he can push harder and accomplish more. His main character is always Florida, resplendent and triumphant. His weapon is always humor, yet as he writes, his face is stern, as though he’s at a funeral. His characters have a strong moral compass and street-smart savoir faire. He finds his sardonic, matter-of-fact narrative is truly his voice, his view of the world. Bit-by-bit he analyzes and dissects everything he comes across, detecting anomalies, unearthing absurdities, seizing ironies, mutilating baddies. Readers connect. He dances the dark edge. He soars. His audience mushrooms.
While he is happiest out under the broad blue sky enjoying Mother Florida’s gifts, ironically he spends years hunched over his keyboard, pounding out punishment to dirtball villains. He takes on everyone. His pen becomes a harpoon. He exposes and shames underhanded politicians with his distinctive riffs. He reveals the dark side of divine Disney with a satiric and sardonic slap. He roars against the machine of progress with signature, depraved-Hiaasen touches. And when it comes to the environment, his Florida, his home, the eco-evangelist in him writes with nothing short of moral fanaticism.
With each word the inquisitive writer wonders: Is the pen mightier than the bulldozer?
We witness crimes against our neighbors, against our world. Each day brings more headlines:
BODY FOUND IN HOME
3 DEAD, 1 INJURED IN BLOODBATH
VIOLENCE FOLLOWS DRUG CARTELS
300 ACRE FIRE SUSPICIOUS
FATHER FINDS SON SHOT TO DEATH
WHO KILLED THIS MOM?
If it burns or bleeds, it leads. But that is not all. We also see:
EAGLES’ NEST VANDALIZED
FOUR LANES APPROVED
PANTHERS BATTLING EXTINCTION
PERMITS PASS COMMISSION
100% FINANCING ON NEW OCEANFRONT CONDOS
OIL HITS COAST
We feel used, battered, violated, exhausted. We seek closure but find little on the front page, on the TV screen, or in the courtroom. It eats at us.
However, there is a place where we can find villains get their come-uppance and that’s crime fiction. And in his novels Carl Hiaasen hits the heart of the target, writing the endings we all crave. Not only do the bad guys get what they deserve, but they always get hamstrung befitting their crimes. We cheer as they get their poetic just desserts in a most miserable and delicious way. And we’re served our dessert. We enjoy the mockery. We relish the satire. We laugh. (Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying.) We laugh and we laugh and we laugh. We find an analgesic substitute closure to soothe and satisfy us.
You see, Carl can do what he does, better than anyone else, because he knows Florida from the inside out. He is one of her own, one taking a stand to protect her, and, I might add, decades before it was chic to be green. Carl is firmly planted in his position. “If I can manage to nail just one of those greedy whores with something I write, then everything is worth it.”
Many inquisitive young writers now look to Carl for their inspiration, pursuing the path he’s blazed with his cutting pen. He’s been compared to Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and called downright subversive (Yay!), as well as Miami’s laureate of sun-kissed sleaze.
Yeah, Carl knows his native dirt. He grows in it.
appeared on www.salon.com Fall 2010 © 2010