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The Good Eco-Terrorist
Carl Hiaasen's Sick Puppy

by Charlie Onion

Sick Puppy
Carl Hiassen
Alfred A. Knopf
341 pp.
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Sick Puppy, Carl Hiaasen's new novel, is one hell of a fun burlesque tease, which is appropriate, I suppose, since he also wrote the novel from which the much-lampooned film Striptease was adapted (pre-Demi, it was actually a comedy, believe it or not). Celluloid evidence to the contrary, Hiaasen has a remarkable knack for farce-speed momentum, and in his latest novel, he gives his characters (the good guys, at least) more depth and sincerity than you'd expect in a broad comedy.

But it's the plot that makes Sick Puppy so entertaining, of course--all the speed and the best-nuanced characters won't save a weak-plotted comedy. So here's a (relatively) quick summary. Palmer Stoat, a whoppingly successful but unpleasant lobbyist, is driving his Range Rover home from a "staged" hunt when he notices a dirty pickup truck following him. (For readers unfamiliar with a staged hunt, it's where rich people who are too busy to take an actual African safari pay top dollar to shoot exotic animals at close range in American 'private game preserves.') Stoat thinks the truck driver wants to steal his Range Rover--a natural thought, in the sunny, danger-fraught Florida in which Sick Puppy is set. Actually, though, the truck driver's another breed altogether: Twilly Spree, a twenty-six-year-old independently wealthy eco-terrorist with unresolved anger issues, is chasing him down because he saw Stoat throw two Burger King hamburger cartons, an empty milkshake cup and a napkin out the Range Rover's window. As far as Spree is concerned, littering is a capital offense, so he follows Stoat home. Then, when Stoat re-emerges with his wife and drives to a local restaurant, Spree bribes a group of trashmen to let him borrow their county trash truck. Then...yep: that's right. Spree dumps the trash onto Stoat's shiny convertible BMW (top down, of course).

Unbelievably, Stoat thinks it's a random act of envy-driven vandalism. So Spree (never one to give up) breaks into Stoat's house, pries the glass eyes from the stuffed heads mounted on Stoat's study walls and shapes them into a pentagram on Stoat's desk. But Stoat still doesn't get the message. So Spree fills Stoat's Range Rover up with dung beetles (you got it: they eat dung). "And still," Hiaasen writes, "he missed the whole damn point." So Spree breaks into the Stoats' house again and kidnaps their massive black Labrador retriever. And that's when the plot really picks up...because the dog is sick from swallowing one of the glass eyes Spree had pried loose from the trophy heads, and when he sneaks back into the Stoats' house to find the vet's medicine, Desi Stoat--Stoat's thirty-two-year-old "bunny-hugger" wife--finds him. And after determining that Spree isn't up to anything predictably greedy, she insists on leaving with him. Then she tells Spree exactly who her husband is and mentions that he's currently working to get a new bridge built to a place called Toad Island so that it can be developed as a real estate Mecca under the new name of Shearwater Island. Ironically, Spree's own father had made his millions off selling commercial waterfront property, and the son never quite recovered from the devastation. So as far as Spree's concerned, Stoat has just gone one class higher, felony-wise, and a little rough play with dung beetles and glass eyes isn't going to be enough.

Believe it or not, that takes us up only to the first fifty pages--about a seventh of the book--and it's a pretty good indication of how heavily plotted the rest of the book is. Despite the dense effect such a summary suggests, though, Hiaasen has produced a nicely structured, absurd plot, and he's a strong enough writer to give it a sense of smooth inevitability without making it feel pre-determined. And that's where Hiaasen's skills at burlesque tease come in: all the plot twists and cliff-hanging surprises fall precisely in the right spots to keep us reading happily through the night. (That Hiaasen's ear for fast, clipped dialogue rivals Elmore Leonard's doesn't hurt either.) Sick Puppy doesn't have a single false note, rhythmically, and that's a remarkable achievement.

Of course, farce as a genre tends to move relentlessly on in one speed-demon gear, without a lot of shifting in narrative voice, and Sick Puppy is no exception. The characters rotate rapidly in and out of our view, but the narrative voice that presents them varies little. However agile Hiaasen is as a storyteller, reading such single-gear, antic-driven confections can begin to feel like you're admiring the intricacies of a finely crafted watch that's guaranteed to be inerrant in its machinations. And while the depth of Twilly Spree and Desie Stoat's sincere goodness is engaging, Hiaasen's bad guys--the politicians, lobbyists and land developers--can be too easily defined broadly by their uniform greed. Over the course of meeting a large cast of characters, their lack of range becomes a bit repetitive. (To paraphrase Tolstoy, all Hiaasen's greedy characters resemble one another, but each good character is good in their own way.)

Nonetheless, Sick Puppy's final chapters still have some of the book's best laugh-out-loud passages, and that's a sizeable accomplishment, given the surprisingly violent turn Hiaasen takes toward the end in meting out punishment to his relentlessly greedy bad guys. Sick Puppy should rightly win Hiaasen more fans, but I doubt there will be many land developers or lobbyists among them. Click here to find any book!


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