Hiaasen's 'Skinny Dip': nibbling the Everglades

Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen. Knopf. 354 pages. $24.95

It serves up tidbits like these: A hairy goon takes a beating from an elderly cancer patient, a biologist hates the outdoors, and a woman's parents die when a bear takes control of their airplane and crashes it. Carl Hiaasen's latest novel is worth picking up if only to delight in these situations.


Like many of Hiaasen's 10 previous novels, Skinny Dip falls into the unlikely genre of lighthearted humor thriller. Hiaasen - a former reporter and current columnist for the Miami Herald - often mines his detailed knowledge of Florida for settings, and, he claims, for his bizarre and quirky characters. This novel - set in Boca Raton and the Everglades with a cast that is barking mad - is no different.

The story begins promisingly with a botched murder. Chaz Perrone, an undistinguished scientist with a mail-order degree, heaves his wife, Joey, off the side of a cruise ship. The Gulf Stream, he figures, will carry Joey's body out to sea if the sharks don't devour it first. But Chaz miscalculates both his wife's tenacity and the direction of the Atlantic current. Rather than drowning, Joey floats safely into the arms of Mick Stranahan - an ex-cop living a reclusive life on a Florida key.


Once Joey regains her strength, she's consumed with an understandable desire to have two questions answered. Why did her husband try to kill her? And how can the jerk be brought to justice? She does not trust the police to sort out either issue, so she pretends to be dead, toying with her husband's psyche in the hopes he'll trip himself up with the police investigation into her disappearance, reveal his motive, or both.

The story leaps back and forth to a number of amusing subplots and back stories. Here Hiaasen is at his best. The anecdotes soar to heights of absurdity - so imaginative and unexpected that one can't help to suspend disbelief. Dialogue and dialects nicely bring out the backgrounds of different characters. Hiaasen skillfully distributes references to popular culture throughout the plot - something that can fall flat in shakier hands.

But much of the story's potential goes untapped. The tale is set against a tantalizingly substantive backdrop - the $8 billion federal and state project to restore the Everglades. But Hiaasen doesn't make use of it. One character cynically calculates "no less than a third of [the money] would be ripped off by lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and big-riggers favored by well-placed politicians." Too bad this wonderful source for motive and corruption is left alone.

Instead, Hiaasen chooses to focus on a small-time scam on the periphery of this project, and the plot never comes together into a believable or compelling narrative. It goes around in the same circle several times before ending abruptly.

By this time, even the initially intriguing characters have morphed into predictable cliches. In the end, the book feels like a cruise aboard a well-appointed boat that leaks. The ride is comfortable and fun until the underlying structure sinks.

Annie Linskey is the assistant to The Sun's book editor. She graduated from Wellesley College and was working on Capitol Hill when the federal government authorized the restoration project for the Everglades.