Nature Girl: Carl Hiaasen Goes Native
For those of you who follow Carl Hiaasen and his writing, you know that a few years ago his books started going from standard South Florida sleaze-crime-with-humor plots to South Florida sleaze crime- with-humor-and-an-underlying-environmental-message plots. Hiaasen is an unabashed advocate for the preservation of natural Florida, a cause that he champions not only in his weekly column for the Miami Herald, but also now in his books. “Nature Girl,” as the title might imply, is as much a story about a bunch of mixed up crazy people stuck in the 10,000 Islands as it is about the Everglades and its natural beauty.
Of course, Hiaasen being Hiaasen it is not exactly “River of Grass” with a zany subplot. It is a humorous and engaging, fast paced story that, surprisingly, actually makes you want to go out and spend some time in the middle of a swamp.
The story follows the format of many of Hiaasen’s books, where a collection of characters, none of whom are wholly sympathetic and many of whom are complete sleazes, end up converging in one place. And bedlam erupts. But unlike some of his previous works, the focal point of the story is not a crime or some sort of government corruption, but rather a harebrained plot by a borderline mentally-ill Everglades trailer-dwelling single mom to get revenge on dinnertime telemarketers.
THE AIRBOAT RIDE…..STRAIGHT TO HELL!
The story begins as a half-breed Seminole named Sammy Tigertail (who may or may not, we discover, have a relation to the namesake of the street in Coconut Grove) buries a drunken tourist who accidentally dies on one of his airboat rides in the middle of the Everglades. Though he is disposing of the corpse to avoid any police repercussions, Sammy (formerly Chad McQueen of West Broward whose white father died and whose stepmother dropped him off on the doorstep of his Seminole mother) actually becomes the anti-hero of the book and and interesting symbol of what the tribe has become.
The book makes many a mention of the proud warriors of the Seminole tribe, who Sammy tries - unsuccessfully as most Hiaasen characters do - to emulate. But he is, after all, half white, and as such is not the great outdoorsmen that a Seminole is expected to be. The book discusses at great length the monetary success of the Seminoles (especially their big casino enterprise up in Hollywood) and portrays Sammy as a man at those crossroads: Trying to hold on to his Native roots while at the same time taking white culture and capitalizing on it.
He goes to hide in a place called Dismal Key out in the 10,000 Islands. For those unfamiliar, 10,000 Islands is an area mostly outside of Everglades National Park that is completely undeveloped wilderness and a popular spot for eco-tourism. We are not sure if there are, in fact, 10,000 islands, as it would take a really long time to count. But it is this popularity among the outdoorsy-types that leads the book’s heroine, Honey Santana, to lure an unsuspecting telemarketer named Boyd Shreave out to Florida for what he assumes to be one of those free “Come look at our land so you’ll but a condo”-type free vacations.
PUTTING THE SLIME IN THE SWAMP
Honey, who we learn is not completely sane, lives in a trailer outside of Everglades City (yes, such a place really does exist) with her son, Fry. One night, after she has gone off her medication, she gets into an altercation with Shreave when he calls her after dinner trying to sell her land up in Gilchrist County, which, if you know anything about North Florida, more resembles a scene from “Deliverance” than “Miami Vice.”
Honey scams some frequent flier tickets from her ex-husband/baby daddy, a sort of rough and tumble Everglades lifer named Perry Skinner, finds Shreave’s personal information, and invites him and his mistress Eugenie out for what Honey describes as a week of fun and relaxation. Being a telemarketer, Shreave agrees to come assuming he will show up, hear the sales pitch, refuse it, and spend a week on the beautiful Florida coast.
Boyd Shreave is exactly the sort of man the name would imply, as Hiaasen once again gives his characters names which mark their personalities. Shreave is a slimy, spineless phone salesman who tries to think of himself as a real man in his suburban surrounding s, but lacks the integrity to do much of anything with his life. His mistress, who goes by the pseudonym Eugenie Fonda, would be a washed-up South Beach party girl if she lived here, but living in Texas is just a hot chick past her prime who is now slumming it with a telemarketer who can’t succeed at anything but selling real estate over the phone.
NOT EXACTLY BEING STRANDED ON AN ISLAND WITH JENN STERGER, BUT…
The trio - Honey, Shreave, and Eugenie - ineviatably get lost in the 10,000 Islands and stuck on Dismal Key with Sammy Tigertail, who by now has been forced by an adventure-seeking Florida State co-ed to take her hostage. The girl, Gillian, is enticed by the thought of being held hostage and ravaged by a hot native, and becomes agitated when Sammy shows no sexual interest in her. Their relationship makes for an interesting side story, as once Sammy finally starts to warm to Gillian and succumbs to her sexual advances, her enthusiasm for the situation wanes. Showing us once again that Hiaasen is a phenomenal observer of the human condition; once a 20-year-old girl realizes that the guy she likes likes her, she immediately loses interest.
Joining these folks on the island are a private investigator named Dealey, hired by Shreave’s perverted alomst-ex-wife to get a penetration shot of her husband and his mistress, Perry Skinner and his son who have come out looking for the boy’s mother, who they know will get lost, and Honey’s former boss Louis Piejack who has an unhealthy obsession with her and an even unhealthier fishy body odor. Piejack, it pays to mention, also recently had his hand forced into a Stone Crab trap by a group of Latino thugs from – where else – Hialeah, who were hired by Honey’s ex husband after Piejack molested her at work. So the stage is set for complete chaos, right?
Well, sort of. While Hiaasen does a masterful job of creating and developing his characters, and using the South Florida wilderness as a beautiful backdrop (if you’ve been to the Everglades you can almost feel yourself on Dismal Key) the plot almost seems like an excuse to get all these crazy people together n one place
MAYBE IT COULD WORK AS A TV SHOW…IF GILLIGAN’S ISLAND HADN’T DONE IT FIRST
The book is high on characterization, is extremely funny in many parts, has great conflict in every scene and uses the Everglades almost as a constant character to help the story along. But unfortunately, “Nature Girl” becomes like a baseball team full of great players who just can’t win the big game. The book keeps you reading only because you want to see what the characters do and how they interact, but does not have a long enough story to make you really care about what happens. Kind of like if you tried to condense “Lost” into 296 pages.
Hiaasen spends a great deal of time indirectly trying to get the readers to appreciate the beauty of the Everglades – and rightfully so – but it may have been better spent spinning a longer story. It almost feels like the book is too short, like more needs to happen to make this a complete story. Once everyone is marooned on the island the main conflict is resolved faster than you want it to be. The characters’ interactions with each other, whether it is the washed-up 6-foot bombshell Eugenie giving her pearl tongue stud to Honey’s 12-year-old son for the “right girl,” or Shreave being humiliated by the young Indian, the time the characters spend together on the island seems too short.
So while anyone who enjoys Carl Hiaasen’s writing will most certainly enjoy “Nature Girl,” it is not really a satisfying read. Hiaasen is almost undone by his own crafting of character and conflict, as the lack of story leaves us wanting more. And while the book was a New York Times bestseller, Hiaasen, as his personal integrity would dictate, is probably not looking to put out a sequel.
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