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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Carl Hiaasen is the reigning master of what Dave Barry recently dubbed "the Bunch of South Florida Wackos" school of crime fiction. His eight novels — of which Sick Puppy is the most outrageous — are grotesque, relentlessly funny accounts of greed and corruption that circle repeatedly around a common theme: the systematic despoliation of modern Florida.
Sick Puppy's convoluted plot springs from a single archetypal phenomenon: the multimillion-dollar real estate deal. This particular deal concerns ex-drug smuggler Robert Clapley and his ongoing attempts to "develop" yet another untouched Gulf Coast island, riding roughshod over its complex ecology and replacing its natural beauties with a full complement of yacht clubs, golf courses, and high-rise condominiums. Clapley's scheme is entirely dependent on the government's willingness to build a million bridge between the island and the Florida mainland. To facilitate the necessary legislation, Clapley secures the services of lobbyist and political fixer Palmer Stoat, inadvertently setting in motion an escalating series of bizarre events.
Palmer Stoat is a man with connections, a man who gets things done. In addition, he is a liar, a philanderer, and a phallocentric egotist with a weakness for imported cigars and "canned" big-game hunts. He is also, unfortunately for him, a litterbug. In the latter capacity, he attracts the attention of a good-hearted, slightly demented ecoterrorist named Twilly Spree. Twilly begins to stalk Palmer, punishing himinspectacular fashion for such petty infractions as tossing hamburgerwrappers out of his car window. Inevitably, Twilly learns that Palmer is a party to a much grander ecological crime: Robert Clapley's impending development of Shearwater Island. At that point, Twilly, who has always had a problem with "anger management," declares unconditional war against Palmer, his partners, and their shortsighted, self-serving schemes.
Twilly's war, which begins with the kidnapping of Palmer's black Labrador (the sick puppy of the title) and ends in the aftermath of a violent encounter with an ancient black rhinoceros named El Jefe, forms the substance of this extravagant entertainment, which is as notable for the vigor and variousness of its characters as it is for the twists and turns of its demented plot. And though Sick Puppy does contain its fair share of sympathetic characters — the perpetually angry Twilly Spree; Desirada "Desie" Stoat, Palmer's attractive, deeply disaffected wife; and a wonderfully characterized wild man (a recurring character in Hiaasen novels) named Skink, a former governor who has seceded from civilized society and declared his own private war against the despoilers of Florida — the novel is ultimately most notable for its richly imagined assortment of patented Hiaasen grotesques.
Foremost among these are Palmer Stoat, who believes, with some justification, that the world and its contents are for sale, and real estate developer Robert Clapley, whose sexuality is rooted in a fetishistic fascination with Barbie dolls. The supporting cast, which is equally off-the-wall, includes Dick Artemis, whose successful career as a Toyota salesman left him perfectly positioned for a second career as governor of Florida; Estella Hyde, a prostitute who will only have sex with registered Republicans; and Karl Krimmler, a rabid opponent of all things natural, a man whose personality was irrevocably warped by a childhood encounter with a hostile chipmunk. Finally, and most memorably, there is Mr. Gash, a professional hit man whose hobbies include sexual acts involving multiple partners and a custom-built trapeze, and who is an avid collector of uncensored recordings of 911 emergency calls.
Sick Puppy is Carl Hiaasen at his most flamboyant and unrestrained. In typical Hiaasen fashion, it is many things at once: thriller, comedy, diatribe, and satirical meditation on the endless varieties of human venality. Its very considerable humor is fueled, at all times, by anger and by an awareness of the simultaneous beauty and fragility of a natural world that is shrinking every day, eroded by the endless desire for power and profit, for "more, more, more, more." Like the best of Hiaasen's earlier work, Sick Puppy is a comedy with brains, heart, and teeth. It is a provocative, immensely entertaining novel, and it deserves the popularity it is doubtless about to achieve.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, will be published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com) in the spring of 2000.