Saturday, January 15, 2011

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen

Skinny Dip
by Carl Hiaasen
Knopf, 2004
368 pages

I am on a roll with actually reading book club books. I consider two read all the way through a roll, yes, why do you ask?

Especially since this is an adult book even. It's longer than 100 pages! Woot!

And I liked it. I really did. It's a fair ways off my usual beaten path, that of fantasy and/or romance. That said, it included, in some ways, a bit of both. Skinny Dip is a revenge fantasy, and there's a hint of very satisfying, if very peripheral, romance throughout the thing. Plus, this book is funny. It might even be, for some people, laugh out loud funny. I didn't laugh out loud, but that didn't mean I wasn't grinning or appreciating the humour.

Chaz Perrone is a screw-up. He's a biologist who hates all living things, except for beautiful women and the grass on his golf greens. He's married, but not faithfully, and he's a lousy son. He has no ambition, unless you can count making lots of money with as little effort as possible ambitious. Currently, he's doing this by faking water samples in the Florida Everglades to keep a very crooked, very rich industrial farmer in the polluting business. And he's pretty sure his wildlife-loving wife has caught on, so it's over the side of a cruise ship with her. It all seems to have gone perfectly.

Except that Chaz is a screw-up, and Joey's not dead. She's also a champion swimmer. And now that she's been "murdered," she's about to make Chaz's life really miserable.

Hiaasen's sense of humour, which is part of his attraction to many I think, is dark and absurd. Example #1: Joey Perrone's first husband was killed by being flattened by a skydiver whose parachute didn't open. Example #2: Tool, a bodyguard stuck on Chaz by the criminal he works for, is extremely hairy and was mistaken for a bear by a hunter, and now lives with a bullet lodged in his posterior crack. The way the entire story unfolds is like this; unlikely-but-just-likely-enough coincidences and events butting up against each other to make for a gleeful black comedy. Somehow, I enjoy the central characters enough -- larger-than-life though many of them were -- and the plot enough that I wanted to suspend disbelief long enough to get to the end of the story. Of course things like that would never happen (would they?) but for the sake of an enjoyable reading experience, I'll let it pass. And then, by the time I'm halfway through, I'm gobbling it all up.

Because of the things I want to talk about, the this review does include some spoilers. It's really unavoidable in this case. I can say that I think this book in particular is about the journey, not the destination, but if you want to be left wondering about the ultimate fates of the various characters as I was, you're better off stopping here. But first, the recommendations:

Entertaining and smart, I'd recommend this book for adults looking for a funny, somewhat dark but never truly dark story. Those with a weak stomach for a bit of violence, any swearing (there's a lot of it) or sex (though not sexy sex) will not enjoy this book, but those who have ever wanted to see real slimeballs get put through the wringer will. Those who like a bit of an environmental bent to their stories (not always easy to find) will like this book, possibly a lot. As for me, it's not really the sort of thing I would search out, not because it's not well-written or enjoyable, but because it's way far out of my usual reading zones. I'm glad I read it. I don't know that I'll be reading a lot more Hiaasen in the future, but I wouldn't rule it out. Based on this book, I know I'd enjoy something else he's written.

/spoilers begin!

This is a good reading experience. Hiaasen has done such a wonderful job with his characters, both good and bad, that there is quite a lot of delight in seeing things turn out the way the reader hopes they will. Everyone, barring no one, gets what they deserve by the end of the book. It's so incredibly satisfying. The journey to get there is entertaining and very twisted. It's as though Hiaasen took a cast of characters from his head and said to himself, "If I was to write a book set in the kind of world where karma works perfectly in a relatively short amount of time, what would happen to each of these characters?"

And if he is unkind to some of his characters -- Chaz in particular, of course -- the reader can't help but watch with a very satisfied smirk and yes, an incredible amount of schadenfreude. Not just because of what he did to Joey, which was despicable enough (though not despicable enough to merit everything he goes through, I suspect) but because of his entire outlook on life, because of everything he has done or not done that we know about, and because of everything that we don't explicitly know about but suspect. Frankly, the only character who I think got off easy for his crimes was the big bad himself, Red Hammernutt.

Conversely, when we meet and then get to know Tool, the extremely hairy and unpleasant bodyguard, Hiaasen has written him in such a way that the reader actually finds herself sympathizing with the guy and hoping things go better for them than the karmic setup suggests they might. And as we go along in his story, one hopes more and more that things will go all right for the guy, despite the fact that he's almost (but never entirely) repellant. There's a moment when that hope appears dashed -- although one realizes later that one was set up to know it couldn't end like that -- and when Tool gets his happy ending, the reader is relieved and very pleased.

This is the reader's fantasy that Hiaasen is manipulating. He knows that every person out there has entertained the fervent but hopeless desire that people would always get what they deserve. He gives us that in such a way that we don't feel like we're being pandered to, or that he's taking the easy way out. It's an explicit goal of the story. But this is also Hiaasen's fantasy: Hiaasen is a big fan of the Everglades, an advocate for environmental responsibility and sustainable practices. One gets the feeling that Joey's not the only one getting revenge on Chaz, and that Tool's not the only one dealing with Red Hammernutt. Anyone at all who has any feeling for the environment and has often despaired about how it's treated has wished that the people who don't seem to care at all would get a wake-up call, or at least disappear. This adds an extra dimension of catharsis for us. Hiaasen hasn't just wished it, he's written it. I can appreciate that.

All of that said, the very ending, the last paragraphs, did make me squirm just a little. I haven't decided yet whether or not Chaz deserved the open-ended that. It might have gone just a little, just a touch too far. Which I think may have been intentional. Chaz still isn't taking responsibility for anything, and he's still a jerk, but... well. By pushing it that extra little step, Hiaasen has added just a little bit of weight to the gloating reader. Because yes, you wished the worst for him, but did you wish him that?


Jill said...

I have only read one book by this author, but it looks like I need to remedy that! This sounds like a fun read.

Jeanne said...

I find that a little Hiassen goes a long way--but this is definitely the right time of year to read him.

Unknown said...

Darla, fun is right. Plus the locale -- as Jeanne says, right time of year to read him. Sun and sand and sun.

Jeanne, I absolutely love how you put that. I think you're exactly right. I wouldn't read another by him right now by any means, because that would be too much.