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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, November 11th, 2004


 

Skinny Dip

by Carl Hiaasen

Swamp Things

A review by Michael Grunwald

Carl Hiaasen is South Florida's literary proctologist: he examines the region's assholes. The rapacious villains of Hiaasen's crime novels do not just commit murder, extortion, assault, fraud, and every conceivable variety of larceny; they also park in handicapped spaces, cheat on their trophy wives, tell racist jokes, flaunt their wealth in unusually obnoxious ways, and mangle the lyrics to good rock-and-roll songs. They do not just do bad things, like steal wheelchairs, shoot cops, and scam retirees; they are bad people, "maggots," "vermin," "cretins," "sleazeballs," "sewer scum," "reprobates," "whorehoppers." They care more about their golf games than their families, and more about money than anything else on earth. They drive Range Rovers with "COJONES" on their vanity plates. They don't listen and they don't learn.  

Hiaasen's evildoers have one additional distinguishing characteristic: they dislike nature. Whether they are predatory developers, corrupt politicians, greedy sugar barons, sleazy corporate lobbyists, or brutal street-level thugs, none of them can appreciate the beauty of a bald cypress stand, a white ibis rookery, or a slash pine forest. If they notice their environment at all, it is only to think about how nice it would be to drain it, pave it, dredge it, and otherwise exploit it. They toss fast-food wrappers out the windows of their gargantuan SUVs. They hunt endangered species and mount the heads on their walls. They bulldoze mangrove swamps and hardwood hammocks into gated communities and strip malls. This is how Hiaasen, a bonefishing fanatic who lives in the subtropical paradise of Islamorada, describes Karl Krimmler, the bullheaded engineer in charge of despoiling a pristine barrier island for a condominium complex in Sick Puppy:

In nature Krimmler saw neither art nor mystery, only bureaucratic obstacles. A flight of swallowtail butterflies or the chirp of a squirrel could send him into a black funk that lasted for days.... Krimmler proved ideally suited to work for land developers, each new mall and subdivision and high-rise and warehouse park bringing him that much closer to his secret fantasy of a world without trees, without wilderness, a world of bricks and pavement and perfect order.

Hiaasen's bad guys are too wrapped up in their sexual perversions and financial machinations to notice the sparkle of a slough or the majesty of a royal palm. It does not bother David Dilbeck, the priapic congressman on Big Sugar's payroll in Strip Tease, that the sugar plantations he is protecting on Capitol Hill are polluting the hallowed Everglades: "Dilbeck didn't understand what all the fuss was about. In truth, he didn't much care for the Everglades; it was torpid, swampy, crawling with bugs." Needless to say, Hiaasen's good guys feel a true connection to nature; they risk their lives to stop shopping centers (Lucky You) and golf resorts (Native Tongue); they are constantly rescuing turtles, dolphins, bobcats, and even deadly snakes. 

The underlying crime in any Hiaasen crime novel is the murder of natural South Florida, and it is no coincidence that the perpetrators are the same villains who commit real murders. "Every scheming shitwad in America turned up here sooner or later, such were the opportunities for predation," he writes in Skinny Dip. Hiaasen is often laugh-out-loud funny, but he is also smoke-out-of-the-ears angry. In his day job as a Miami Herald columnist, he takes potshots at the jerks destroying his idyllic wonderland; in his novels, he subjects them to full-throated libel-proof ridicule. His credo is best expressed by his avenging angel, Skink, an idealistic former Florida governor who recognized the futility of trying to reform the state's ruling kleptocracy, then fled to the Everglades to eat roadkill and practice ecoterrorism: "Nothing shameful about anger, boy. Sometimes it's the only sane and logical and moral reaction." 

 

Skinny Dip is Hiaasen's latest escapade, and like the others it is hilarious and furious. It is also his most topical novel, using as its backdrop the $8 billion effort to restore the ravaged Everglades ecosystem, the most important public works project in the history of Florida and the largest environmental project in the history of the planet. That said, I must make an observation about Hiaasen's fiction that will border on blasphemy in many Florida precincts: it is fiction.  

It feels a bit silly to point out that Hiaasen's outrageous caricatures and insane plots bear little resemblance to reality, as if readers might otherwise believe that typical Florida developers are drug smugglers with Barbie-doll fetishes, or Mafia hoods in the Witness Protection Program. But it needs to be pointed out, because somehow it has become conventional wisdom in Hiaasen's homeland to marvel at how accurately Hiaasen's novels capture the way Florida really works.  

This happens not to be the case. Florida is crazy and corrupt, with its dimpled chads and crooked politicians and anthrax attacks on supermarket tabloids, but it is not that crazy and corrupt. It is smart to be cynical about Florida politics, especially the daily blathering about protecting the state's precious natural resources, but it is dumb to think that all Florida politics can be explained by the evil conspiracies that saturate Hiaasen's novels. In fact, that kind of thinking has often held back the cause of reform. 

Hiaasen's disclaimer at the beginning of Skinny Dip warns that it is a work of fiction, based on imaginary events--"except for the destruction of the Florida Everglades and the $8 billion effort to save what remains." But Hiaasen's account of the death and the attempted resurrection of the Everglades is as imaginative as his accounts of an ambulance-chasing lawyer who fakes his own disability or a hairy 280-pound bodyguard with a bullet lodged in his hindquarters. I don't blame him for embellishing: so far, the Everglades megaproject has consisted mostly of mind-numbing meetings about "performance measures," "programmatic regulations," "interim goals," and "pre-CERP baselines." But while it may be popular to blame the destruction of the Everglades on malevolent forces of darkness, it is a dangerous delusion for Floridians. And while it may be comforting to think that the restoration of the Everglades can be achieved by foiling the nefarious conspiracies of cartoon villains, the truth is far more complex. 

In Skinny Dip, the bad guys destroying the Everglades are easy to identify, because they are remorseless murderers who don't even like birds or bunnies. In reality, however, the bad guys destroying the Everglades are us. 

 

Hiaasen introduces the main villain of Skinny Dip with his trademark nuance: "At heart Chaz Perrone was irrefutably a cheat and a maggot." Chaz's favorite song, it almost goes without saying, is "Bad to the Bone." The novel opens with Chaz tossing his wife Joey over the railing of a cruise liner, because he thinks that she has uncovered his scam to help a polluter use the Everglades as a latrine. Her reaction to the attempted murder is classic Hiaasen: "I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves."  

Joey manages to grab hold of the nearest marijuana bale that happens to be floating in the area, and hangs on until she is rescued by a former cop named Mick Stranahan. Joey's afraid Chaz will beat the rap if she goes to the police, so she and Mick decide to let him think she is dead and then mess with his head. That is the basic plot of the book, along with the inevitable romance between Joey and Mick, and some typically raucous subplots about two missing pythons, Chaz's experiments with Viagra, and the spiritual awakening of the aforementioned bullet-ridden thug, who becomes friends with a cancer patient he meets while stealing her pain medication. There are also two manic cameo appearances by Skink, who was born to deal with jerks like Chaz. 

Chaz is clearly bad to the bone. He bears the mark of Cain in Hiaasen's world: he doesn't give a damn about the environment. As a boy, he flushed a terrapin down the toilet. Family connections landed him in a master's program in biology, but studying sea lice only "reignited Chaz's antipathy toward the great outdoors and all denizens great and small." Chaz is probably the only biologist in Florida who doesn't know which direction the Gulf Stream flows. He misidentifies an Everglades marsh rabbit as a rodent before he blows it away with a .38. He cannot even identify the fish in his own aquarium: "Do I look like frigging Jacques Cousteau?"  

After graduation, Chaz took a job generating junk science for a cosmetics company, covering up the tumors its perfumes caused in mice and bamboozling juries with his Ken-doll charm. But one day he spotted a headline about the $8 billion Everglades project, and "fortune appeared to Chaz in a mystical burst of green light." That was when Chaz offered his services as a "biostitute" to the other villain of Skinny Dip, a vegetable farmer and influence peddler named Red Hammernut, whose agribusiness has just been caught dumping phosphorous-laden runoff into the Everglades. Red had already weathered charges that he was keeping migrant workers as indentured servants in horrid squalor--the scandal had dimmed after he had the whistleblower murdered--but he was eager to avoid more unpleasant publicity. It was bad for his bottom line. 

Red shares Chaz's contempt for the unruliness of nature, vastly preferring his orderly rectangular fields. He describes the Everglades as "God's septic tank," and "cared only slightly less about its wildlife than he did about the wretched souls who toiled for dirt wages in his crop fields." That is why he bankrolls Chaz to a doctorate in wetland science, then stashes him in a state government job measuring water pollution from Hammernut Farms. Thanks to Chaz's fictitious data, the farm's official phosphorous levels plunge from an astronomical 302 parts per billion to a perfectly legal 9. Red is so happy to avoid spending millions of dollars on filtration ponds, political bribes, and legal fees that he buys Chaz a yellow Hummer.  

The main downside of Chaz's new job is that he has to hang out in the waterlogged morasses of the Everglades, too close for his comfort to panthers, gators, snakes, and mosquitoes. Here is a typical sampling expedition:

A breeze fluffed the saw grass and combed ripples in the dark water. Coots tiptoed through the hyacinths and lilies, a young heron speared minnows in the shallows and a small bass went airborne to take a dragonfly. The place was thrumming with wildlife, and Chaz Perrone was miserable.

Nothing about nature awed, soothed or humbled him--not the solitude or the mythic vastness or the primordial ebb and flow. To Chaz, it was all hot, buggy, funky-smelling and treacherous. He would have been so much happier on the driving range.... With a dirty shirtsleeve Chaz mopped the perspiration from his brow, thinking: What a steaming shithole this is! To think that the taxpayers of America are spending 8 billion bucks to save it.

Suckers, Chaz thought. If they only knew.

Joey, by contrast, is a fine person, and like all good Hiaasen people--including Mick, the thug with a bullet in his butt, Joey's brother, and the detective investigating Joey's murder--she has an appropriate respect for Mother Nature. So when she first sets eyes on the vast expanse of the Everglades, she's overwhelmed by its golden ocean of sedge and stream: "That he never spoke of the place, except to gripe about the snakes and the insects, was even more stunning to Joey now that she'd finally seen it for herself. How could Chaz--a biologist, for God's sake--not be dazzled?"  

The truth, though, is that the Everglades has a long history of failing to dazzle visitors. Its first explorers described it as a "repulsive," "worthless," "desolate," "God-abandoned" swamp. Guidebooks still warn tourists that it "takes some getting used to," that it "reveals its secrets slowly," that its appeal "may escape many visitors at first glance." It lacks the gaping canyons, rugged cliffs, and rolling hills that most Americans associate with dazzling scenery; it is mostly saw grass and shallow water. Even the first superintendent of Everglades National Park--a biologist, for God's sake--admitted that "there is nothing ... in the Everglades that will make Mr. Jonnie Q. Public suck in his breath." I'm currently writing about the Everglades full-time, and I would not say that it is dazzling. It is fascinating, unique, and important; and it is beautiful in a subtle way; and its future will say a lot about ours. But dazzling? I might get kicked out of the next Everglades Coalition conference for saying this, but most of the saw grass Everglades looks like a soggy Nebraska.  

In Skinny Dip, though, the answer to Joey's question is that Chaz is a nasty man who just doesn't get it. That is why he is not awed by the swamp, and that is why he tries to kill his kind and beautiful wife, and that is why he is helping to kill the Everglades: "He had betrayed the wetlands as nonchalantly as he had betrayed Joey. He had sold out--this greedy swine she'd married--so that megatons of noxious crap could be pumped day and night into the glistening waters below. Maybe for someone as soulless as her husband it wasn't much of a reach, Joey thought, from killing a place to killing a person." Actually, it is a bit of a reach. The Everglades would be a lot easier to save if its only enemies were murderous swine and their noxious crap. 

 

"The murder of the Everglades, as perpetrated by Red Hammernut and others, is insidiously subtle and undramatic," Hiaasen writes. The murder weapon is "the fertilizers pouring by the ton from the sugar-cane fields and vegetable farms of southern Florida." The perpetrators are the farmers whose farms poison the marshes of the Everglades, and their associates who help them get away with it. Hiaasen made the same point in Strip Tease, when the stripper with a heart of gold chastises the hideously corrupt congressman for his ignorance about the Everglades: "Where do you think our drinking water comes from? Out there, Davey. And your pals are pissing fertilizer into it." In Skinny Dip, Hiaasen portrays the $8 billion megaproject as an effort "to reduce the steady deluge of man-made fertilizers," to undo the damage inflicted by the Red Hammernuts of South Florida. 

It makes for a good story, but it is not the true story. It is correct that as late as the 1980s, corporate farmers were using the Everglades as a sewer, contaminating it with runoff with as much as 300 parts per billion of phosphorus. It wasn't exactly "megatons of noxious crap"--phosphorus is a common nutrient, found in such toxic substances as Coca-Cola, baking powder, and human teeth--and most of the agricultural phosphorus had little to do with fertilizers; but it did have a destructive effect on the shallow-water ecosystem, which was naturally phosphorus-limited. The spongy algal mats at the bottom of the Everglades food chain began to disintegrate, and dense cattail stands began crowding out the panoramic swaths of saw grass that define the Everglades. So in 1988, the federal government filed a massive Clean Water Act lawsuit to force Florida and its farmers to deal with the mess. This led the state to enact the Everglades Forever Act of 1994, a $1 billion project designed to reduce phosphorus levels. It is completely separate from the $8 billion restoration initiative, even though Hiaasen often conflates them.  

A decade ago, environmentalists lambasted Everglades Forever as a sellout straight out of a Hiaasen novel, because it extended the cleanup deadline until 2006, let well-connected polluters off the hook for two-thirds of its cost, and failed to define pristine phosphorus levels. Most scientists placed this level at 10 parts per billion, but the sugar industry's hired expert--the head of Duke University's wetlands program, where Hiaasen sends Chaz for his doctorate--initially calculated those levels at about 50. It looked like the fix was in. 

But the fix wasn't in. The state eventually did choose 10 as its target, and its 40,000 acres of new filtration marshes--enough to cover Washington, D.C.--have performed better than anyone expected. Meanwhile, the farmers of the Everglades, who were required to reduce their discharges 25 percent per year, have cut them more than 50 percent per year. Last year, Governor Jeb Bush and a battalion of forty-six sugar lobbyists tinkered a bit with the deadlines and targets, inspiring an explosion of green outrage over the "Everglades Whenever Act." But the overall water-quality trend remains excellent, with phosphorus measurements as low as the teens. And no, those results are not being concocted by biostitutes like Chaz Perrone. They are real. 

Everglades agribusinesses often live up to their dastardly reputation--trying to bully the World Health Organization into declaring sugar a kind of miracle elixir, using their muscle to get Florida citrus exempt from free-trade deals, and generally forcing politicians to carry their water in Washington and Tallahassee. President Clinton interrupted his breakup with Monica Lewinsky to take a twenty-two-minute phone call from a Florida sugar baron, and Red Hammernut's typical ego wall--featuring photos of him chumming around with Clinton, both President Bushes, and a slew of Florida politicians--does help explain how farmers were allowed to poison the Everglades so flagrantly for so long. But they are cleaning up their act--not voluntarily, perhaps, but efficiently. Their runoff now contains less phosphorus than Evian. They are convenient scapegoats in campaigns and in novels, but they are not killing the Everglades. 

 

If dirty water were the only problem in the Everglades, there would be no need for the most ambitious ecosystem project in history. So who are the real killers? People, that's who. Jonnie Q. Public.  

Before 1880, South Florida was almost completely uninhabited. The wetlands of the Everglades still flowed gently across most of the lower peninsula, not quite water but not quite land, too wet to farm but too dry to sail. But for most of the century that followed, a series of visionaries launched bold campaigns to drain the swamp for agriculture and development. Hiaasen sneers at their dreams as a "rapacious fantasy," but back then wetlands were considered wastelands, and nobody even considered trying to save them. The drainage crusaders didn't think of themselves as rapacious exploiters; they thought of themselves as progressive heroes. They wanted to put South Florida on the map, to convert a yucky swamp into America's winter garden. Hadn't God specifically instructed mankind to subdue the earth and take dominion over every living thing that moveth upon it?  

Their efforts culminated in the postwar Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, the world's most elaborate water-management system, a labyrinth of dikes, ditches, and giant pumps that allows its operators to move almost any drop of rain that falls on the region almost anywhere they want. The project converted the northern Everglades into the Everglades Agricultural Area, a swath of farmland the size of Rhode Island just below Lake Okeechobee. It converted the central Everglades into glorified reservoirs and sumps. And it helped transform South Florida into a sprawling megalopolis with seven million residents and forty million annual tourists.  

It also destroyed the Everglades. To be more precise, those millions of people whom it protects and serves have destroyed the Everglades. Their gated communities, strip malls, and golf resorts have obliterated half of it. The other half has been fragmented, obstructed, and otherwise convoluted by the latticework of canals and levees that keep them dry, and by the highways they have laid across the swamp. Their demand for drinking water parches the Everglades during droughts; their demand for flood control forces water managers to inundate the Everglades during storms. Yes, farm runoff has polluted the marshes, but suburban runoff pollutes the marshes, too. And water quality in the Everglades is not as lousy as water quantity, and its timing and distribution; the place now has the wrong amounts of water in the wrong places at the wrong times, which is why it is home to sixty-nine endangered species, including the wood stork, the crocodile, and the Florida panther.  

South Florida's spectacular growth would have presented an ecological challenge even if it all took place on high ground that was suitable for development, like the coastal ridge that supports downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. But most of the construction binge has taken place in lowlying wetlands--biological hot spots that provide kitchens and nurseries for wildlife, while filtering drinking water and absorbing floodwater for people. The result has been an ecological disaster, from the algal blooms that cloud South Florida's bays to the mercury contamination of the region's fish to the exotic vegetation that has overrun two million acres of the Everglades. Wall-to-wall sprawl has also threatened South Florida's underground aquifers, clogged its schools, hospitals, and highways, and confounded its hurricane evacuation plans. We have seen the enemy, as Pogo once said about another imperiled swamp, and it is us. 

 

Hiaasen is as angry as anyone about runaway sprawl. In Skinny Dip, Chaz lives in a laughably sterile suburban subdivision called West Boca Dunes Phase II; Tool demands to be paid extra to work as a bodyguard there. Here is Hiaasen's aerial view of the suburbs that are steamrolling the former Everglades, placeless places like Plantation and Pembroke Pines, Weston and Wellington: 

New subdivisions were erupting like cankers in all directions; thousands upon thousands of cookie-cutter houses, jammed together so tightly that it looked like you could jump from roof to roof for miles on end. Where there were no homes stood office parks, shopping plazas and enormous auto malls--acres and acres of Toyotas and Chryslers, cooking in the sun. Only a slender dirt levee separated the clamorous tide of humanity from the Everglades. 

This is the real reason South Florida got an $8 billion megaproject. It wasn't about cleaning up after the insidious forces of agribusiness, which was already being done. It was about re-plumbing the region in order to re-create a viable and semi-natural Everglades alongside that clamorous tide of humanity--and the additional tide that is expected to roll in as the baby boomers start retiring. That will be a lot harder to do. 

The Everglades restoration project, after all, was not designed to stop growth, to slow growth, or even to manage growth by steering it away from the Everglades. It was designed to promote growth. It is supposed to Get the Water Right--by restoring more natural flows in the Everglades, but also by providing flood control and water supply to accommodate twelve million South Florida residents by 2020. The flood-control and water-supply aspects are quite certain; the environmental aspects, not so much. 

But that is not the result of a criminal conspiracy. It is the result of politics.  

 

It is easy to understand why Florida environmentalists believe that the political process is broken: the Everglades has been getting screwed for decades. Florida certainly has a sick political culture, far too committed to growth at any cost, far too responsive to real estate and agribusiness interests, far too willing to sell off its natural heritage, and sometimes it really does resemble a Hiaasen novel. I know one earnest southwest Florida enviro who spent years trying to convince Collier County's commissioners that biodiversity was not some kind of communist plot--until it came out that most of the Collier County commissioners were accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from golf-course developers. She had not realized that the fix actually was in. 

But usually the fix is not in. Florida's political process may not be particularly eco-friendly--although it has protected a million acres of land in the last decade--but it is much less corrupt than it used to be. The delusion that behind the scenes it is still a Carl Hiaasen novel has inspired some very counterproductive tactics. Last spring, for example, enviros paid for a billboard near the Islamorada home of Michael Collins, a Florida Bay fishing guide and Republican water official who was squabbling with them over water-quality standards. "Save the Bay, Save the Glades, Stop Mike Collins," the billboard said. "Call Mike Collins and tell him to STOP protecting polluters." Then it listed his home phone number, as if a public harassment campaign was going to persuade Collins and his allies to side with the enviros next time. I mention this particular episode because Mike Collins happens to be one of Carl Hiaasen's fishing buddies. He is cited in the acknowledgments of Skinny Dip. The enviros may assume that the Everglades is being sold out by a grand conspiracy of vile scum, as it always is in Hiaasen's novels, but Hiaasen himself apparently takes a more nuanced view.  

This is not an argument for kneejerk accommodationism. In fact, some Florida environmentalists are as quick to compromise as the others are quick to demonize, and all for the same reason: they believe the political process is rigged in favor of moneyed interests. So they lash out in frustration, or else they jump at the first deal that they are offered, or they do both. The $8 billion project's emphasis on water supply and flood control is a prime example of a compromise that could ultimately backfire on the Everglades. 

It will all depend upon how things play out over the next three decades. And many environmentalists are understandably skeptical that the Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Florida will put the interests of the Everglades ahead of the interests of growth. I am skeptical, too. But who said restoring the Everglades would be easy? Today Florida's growth-obsessed political culture reflects Jonnie Q. Public's desire for low taxes and highway interchanges and zero-lot-line housing much better than it reflects his desire for a healthy Everglades that would protect the region's underground aquifers. But tomorrow it doesn't have to be that way. Someone just needs to persuade Jonnie. 

This is an argument, in other words, for politics. When I try this dorky approach on my Florida friends, they laugh and tell world-weary stories about Elián González, or the butterfly ballot, or some unctuous lobbyist for Big Sugar, or a slimy condominium builder who bought off a local planning board. You're naïve. You don't get Florida. It's different here. But I think that they have read too many Hiaasen novels. "Only in Florida" has become a lazy trope, a lame excuse for hopelessness and inaction. There is no good reason that politics has to be different here. Sure, many people who live in Florida are from out of state, but that doesn't mean they can't take care of the place. Obviously people care a lot about making money down here, but where do people not care about making money?  

Hiaasen's novels usually end with a wild slice of Florida being saved from the brink of development, and with Skink subjecting the greedy bastards behind the plot to a taste of swamp justice. But in the real world, the fight over the Everglades will be much duller. It will be hashed out through bureaucratic battles over growth-management plans, lakerelease protocols, project-implementation reports, wetlands-construction permits, and similar eye-glazing nitty-gritty. It will be shaped by the green movement's ability to persuade Jonnie Q. Public to adjust his voting patterns and his living patterns. And it might require some pricey incentives to persuade Red Hammernut to return at least some of his land to nature instead of converting it into condos and parking lots. 

Cynicism about politics has its place, particularly in Florida; but like it or not, a political process will determine whether Everglades restoration actually restores the Everglades. There will be no car chases, no murder investigations, no swamp vigilantes to make things right at the end. The good guys can whine that the game is rigged, or they can do a better job of playing it. Either way, it will all make an extremely boring novel someday. And Carl Hiaasen will not be the one to write it.


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