Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen is the Dave Barry of crime, an ambassador for the Florida of everyone's dreams whose novels satirize the Sunshine State's dark side.
On the road with his latest novel, 'Basket Case,' Hiaasen is coming to Powell's City of Books on Sunday, Jan. 27, for a book-signing and good-natured chat.
When he's here, people will come up to him and tell him about friends and relatives in Florida and places they've vacationed, as they always do.
'Then they'll ask why southern Florida is so weird and so crazy,' Hiaasen says by phone during a New York stop on his tour. 'I don't have a good answer. It's certainly attracted the outlaw fringe for 100 years. People have gone down there chasing a dream, or they're being chased. Key West has more fugitive arrests than anywhere else. They're usually stupid and minor, but it's the last place you'd want to run: The road ends there!'
Southern Florida's criminals have kept Hiaasen occupied for the last 25 years. These days he writes three newspaper columns a week for the Herald. He also has cranked out nine comic novels Ñ starting with 'Tourist Season' Ñ that lampoon greedy Florida developers, incompetent plastic surgeons, hunters of crippled big game and fishing tournament cheats, among others. (Hiaasen's fifth book, 'Strip Tease,' was made into a film that starred Burt Reynolds and Demi Moore; unfortunately, his lightning-in-a-bottle humor didn't make it onscreen.)
Many of the most odd circumstances in Hiaasen's books have a basis in real life. As they say in the newspaper business, 'You can't make this stuff up.'
What, for example, could top the last presidential election?
'It was satire from beginning to end,' Hiaasen says. 'How could you come up with someone better than Katherine Harris (Florida's secretary of state, who worked on Bush's campaign and also arbitrated the vote count) and have the fate of the election hanging on a state where the governor is the brother of one of the candidates? Or where you have old people Ñ predominantly Jewish in Palm Beach Ñ mysteriously voting for a candidate who questioned the legitimacy of the Nazi role in the Holocaust? Things I could not invent, I was covering as a journalist!'
Hiaasen's latest book is written in first person, a change in gears that he agonized over to the point of writing the first five chapters in both first and third person and soliciting his editor's opinion on which to use. It's also surprisingly free of the lunatics who people his earlier books. But it still has his trademark wit, in the form of ruthless lampooning of the modern daily newspaper.
For instance, he has its protagonist (Jack Tagger, a thinly veiled version of Hiaasen who's confined to a newspaper's obituary desk after insulting the preppy new publisher) observe that 'newspapers customarily do not report a private death as a suicide on the theory it might plant the idea in the minds of other depressed people, who would immediately rush out and do themselves in. These days, no paper can afford to lose subscribers.'
Hiaasen, a Florida native who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, says one of his most prized endorsements came from best-selling novelist John D. MacDonald, whose durable boat-bum Travis McGee survived 21 books of shootings and beatings.
'John D. was inspirational to me,' says Hiaasen. 'He was worrying about the same stuff as me long before it was hip. É And it was such a kick that he could sneak in these great riffs and jabs, those little exchanges between McGee and Meyer (McGee's economist friend) about what was happening in Florida in the '60s and '70s. Here's a guy writing page-turning stuff, yet he's getting his point across.'
Hiaasen remains frustrated by the paving over of his home state by unscrupulous developers who are happy to bribe politicians, exterminate endangered species and pollute whatever they don't build on.
Does he think Florida will turn out OK in the end?
'I don't know if it can ever come back all the way,' he says. 'How can we get rid of that much asphalt? Greed still rules the day; politicians are owned by real estate developers and bankers. But with more people moving in, there's a larger constituency for saving Florida.
'People look around and say: 'This isn't what I came here for. Crime, traffic congestion and the school system under stress? I didn't come here to live in Toledo with palm trees.' These people are getting involved with zoning, fighting urban sprawl.
'A lot of these folks have money, and they're putting up a battle. If I were objective, I'd say it's probably a losing battle, but how can you give up and walk away?'