Life in the state of Florida is solitary, nasty, brutish and short in Carl Hiaasen's new comedy of revenge, Sick Puppy. Like his earlier novels (Native Tongue, Striptease), Hiaasen mines South Florida for some of the greediest, slimiest, and most grotesque characters in popular fiction. But unlike his colleagues, Hiaasen girds his black comedies with serious political commentary. Sometimes it works, sometimes, like in last year's Lucky You, it really doesn't. Sick Puppy, although strident in its message, succeeds because its serious purpose balances the bizarre comedy of the novel.
It begins with a dead rhinoceros and the stalking of a litterbug. Über-lobbyist Palmer Stoat heads home to Fort Lauderdale from a canned hunt at a private game "preserve" when he receives his latest assignment: secure the funding for a bridge to Toad Island, a crucial step in its lucrative transformation into the Shearwater Island. Stoat knows that little stands in his way. A few favors, a few calls, a little pork, a little boodle and the toads of Toad Island are history. Unfortunately, Stoat's insular confidence is ended with the thoughtless act of throwing his fast food trash out the window.
Enter Twilly Spree, angry young man. Sick of seeing Florida crammed with tourists, ruinous beachfront condos, and other more mundane assaults on the environment, Spree intends to make the idiot in the Range Rover tossing hamburger wrappers out the window see the error of his ways. The idiot, Stoat, is particularly dense, and Spree soon realizes that Stoat needs a more elaborate program of reeducation. The program, naturally, spirals out of control. Each step brings a new surprise: powdered rhino horn, flatulent black labs, spike-haired hit men, live "Barbie" twins, and the return of Skink, the former Governor Clinton Tyree.
But Hiaasen's point is much more serious than his over-the-top plotting. To him, Florida, the wild and beautiful landscape of his youth, is being lost to the venality of developers and corrupt politicians. Democratic institutions have failed in Florida; legitimate governance has given way to a system of favors, political gifts (Stoat names his dog "Boodle," a synonym for a political bribe) and fixers like Stoat. What is left for those who want to protect the real Florida? Anger and the presumed vengeance of nature. As Skink tells Twilly late in the novel, there is "Nothing shameful about anger, boy. Sometimes it's the only sane and logical and moral reaction. Jesus, you don't take a class to make it go away! You take a drink or a goddamn bullet. Or you stand and fight the bastards."
Sick Puppy is ultimately as unforgiving as nature's order. The characters are not likeable. There is no redemption or apology. But that's Hiaasen's design. In the end, we are treated to one of his favorite devices, the epilogue with thumbnail descriptions of the fates of many of his characters. Some of the scoundrel's prosper, some don't. There's the sense that there is more work to be done. Sure, Hiaasen himself may not be ready to kidnap the dogs of unregenerate litterbugs or clobber drunken jet skiers, but it's the thought that counts.