RogerBW's Blog

Kick Ass, Carl Hiaasen 19 December 2015

1999 collected newspaper columns, written from 1985 onwards. Hiaasen gets his teeth into issues of local politics, corruption, finance and wildlife preservation, often all at once.

That's actually something of a problem. The columns are arranged into eighteen chapters with loose unifying themes ("Cops, Courts, and Lawyers", "Tax Dollars at Work", "Stormy Weather"), but very often the same names come up again and again – not surprising when it's the Miami mayor or a similar position – and so one may read about someone's eventual indictment and imprisonment before one's come across his previous bad behaviour. Also, when a situation is mentioned several times in quick succession, the columns (which may have been published months apart) become repetitive as each new one recapitulates what's already happened before going on to the new material, and may even come up with basically the same conclusion in much the same words. I think this would have worked better as a collection if the columns had simply been put in chronological order.

The other problem is that, well, these are newspaper columns of a few hundred words each. There isn't really room to develop a theme or show any of the subtleties of the situation. There are always clear bad guys, and sometimes some good guys to go against them.

For example, consider the Florida Bullet Train (killed off, later revived as the Florida High Speed Corridor, and killed off again): Hiaasen asserts, without evidence because there's no room for it, that estimates of usage were wildly optimistic and that the train would have been slower than flying. (Actually it seems to me that a 90-ish-minute train ride from Orlando city centre to Miami city centre might well be faster than getting to an out-of-town airport, going through security (even pre-2001 security), filing in through a single door, taking a 66-minute flight, filing out through a single door, waiting for your baggage, and getting back in from the airport to somewhere worthwhile.) There may have been genuine objections to the scheme, but we don't hear about them here: it's just a polemic built on those two assertions. The train company had higher passenger estimates than Hiaasen allows, therefore the train company consists of bad guys. Jeb Bush cancelled the scheme, therefore Jeb Bush is a good guy. It's hard to see how Hiaasen could have done better in the word count, but this sort of thing does tend to undermine his arguments when they're considered soberly.

But these arguments are all at least sixteen years old anyway, even if some of them do have remarkably continuing relevance. I at least read Hiaasen for the language and the sense of the weird, and here he excels. In a piece turning on a "voodoo" doll found by a senior politician:

Don't waste time sticking pins into your mayor-doll's back. Stick them into its pockets, to discourage graft.

When talking about bodies found in car trunks:

Twelve car-trunkers out of 438 homicides is scarcely an epidemic, but for 1986 it certainly puts us at the head of the pack, per capita. (Admittedly, national statistics are somewhat elusive in this area. Believe it or not, most large metropolitan areas don't keep a separate category for car-trunk murders.)

Or dogfighting:

In case you're not aware of how dogfighting is conducted: The animals are turned loose against each other until one is either dead or so mangled it can no longer bite back, at which point the fun apparently goes out of the match.

When he waxes lyrical about the vanishing Everglades he's sometimes less effective to my mind, but even here he has his moments:

In the meantime, if it comes to a policy choice between soaking a bird and soaking somebody's carpet, the birds will probably lose. Too bad they can't learn to build their nests in taller grass. Too bad we can't learn not to build our subdivisions in swamps.

(Mass water releases into the habitat of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow were still an issue in 2013.)

Don't expect these pieces to be more than they are, in other words. They're good newspaper columns, but they're not novels. They do, however, very clearly show where Hiaasen got the inspiration for his novels.

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