Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen (2004)

‘For what it’s worth, I would never toss a woman off a ship after having wild sex with her. Or even tame sex.’
‘Spoken like a true gentleman.’
(Mick Stranahan and Joey Perrone, Skinny Dip, page 165)

Hiaasen was successful and well known by the time this, his tenth solo comedy thriller was published, and the cover of the paperback is thronged with the great and the good queuing up to praise him. Among them is one Boris Johnson who writes: ‘Hiaasen is the greatest living practitioner of the comic novel’, and who am I to question the literary judgements of the British Prime Minister?

The plot

One April night handsome wetlands ecologist Dr Charles Perrone throws his wife, Joey, over the stern of the huge cruise liner, the MV Sun Duchess as it steams along the coast of Florida. He’d invited her on a week-long cruise ostensibly to patch up their two-year-old marriage, so it came as a big surprise  to Joey when, after they’d strolled to the stern of the huge cruiser, Chaz said he’d dropped his keys, stooped to pick them up – and the next thing she knew he’d got both her ankles in his hands, and  pitched her up and over the stern rail, falling falling falling.

The initial reason presented to the reader is that Chaz has a new lover, a voluptuous hairdresser named Ricca Jane Spillman (p.201), who he phones as soon as the ship docks. But the key fact of the entire plot is that Joey does not die. She’s a strong swimmer, swam for her school and college, and so instinctively shapes herself into an elegant dive on the way down, enters the water smoothly, regains the surface and sets out swimming strongly towards the distant lights of the Florida coastline.

Still, the ship is a long way from shore in a heavy swell and Joey would have drowned, had she not bumped into a big floating bale of marijuana, presumably jettisoned by some drug smuggler at the approach of coast police. She clings, half clambers aboard this, and passes out…

To regain consciousness safe and sound in a clean bed. A stranger calling himself Mick was out at dawn in his fishing boat, saw a shape bobbing in the water, motored over, realised it was a person clinging to a bale, pulled her aboard, brought her home, stripped and bathed and redressed her and put her to bed, which is where she slowly comes round…

We quickly learn that this rescuer is none other than strong capable Mick Stranahan, who Hiaasen fans will recognise from his 1989 novel Skin Tight. In that novel Mick was an investigator with the State Prosecutor’s office who was forced to take early retirement aged 39 because, while arresting a crooked judge, Raleigh Goomer, the judge drew a gun and shot him and Mick shot the judge dead (p.78). He was exonerated in the resulting case, but a prosecutor who has shot a judge dead isn’t a welcome figure in his profession. Hence the early retirement and a generous state pension. Which he uses to fund the simple life out on a shack built on stilts in the shallow area of Biscayne Bay called Stiltsville (p.50)

Most Hiaasen novels have one standout macabre moment or image and Skin Tight‘s came when a hitman breaks into Mick’s shack looking to kill him. Mick was forewarned, lying in wait, and skewers  the man with the long horn on the front of a marlin he’d caught and whose head he had mounted on his wall. Mick develops into the knight in shining armour in that novel, setting out to get to the bottom of a murder mystery and now, 15 years later, he plays the same role in this book.

When Hurricane Andrew demolished the house on stilts where he used to live, Mick found a replacement, a solidly built holiday home on an isolated coral atoll, owned by a famous Mexican novelist, Miguel Zedillo (p.439) who never goes there but which needs a house-sitter. So here is Mick, aged 53, living alone with a fat old Doberman Pinscher named Strom.

Dogs are an indicator of integrity in Hiaasen. Compare the affectionate black labrador McGuinn which played a central role in Sick Puppy. Dogs and fishing. All the good guys know how to fish or, like strong silent Mick, know not only what rod and lure and bait to use, but how to gut and cook beautiful fish dinners for lovely blonde ladies he’s rescued from drowning

The blade was steady and precise in his large weathered hands. (p.91)

Oooh, the manliness! For the next 476 pages, Mick will be at Joey’s side to protect and serve her as the pair set about trying to discover what on earth motivated slimeball Chaz to toss his wife over the rail. In the end the motive is fairly simple but it takes at least 200 pages for the pair to work it out, by which stage they have conceived a plan: to screw with Chaz’s mind, to blackmail him, freak him out, make him think he’s going mad, to milk as much vengeance from the slimeball as they possibly can.

Characters part 1

The plot is long and, as in all good farces, extravagantly complicated. Here are aspects of it refracted through the main characters:

  • Joey Perrone, née Wheeler. When her parents were killed in a freak plane accident when she was small, she and brother Corbett were brought up by greedy relatives who had their eye on the inheritance. To escape them Corbett fled to the other side of the world and became a sheep farmer in New Zealand (p.86), while Joey tried to escape via various relationships with men, namely a first marriage to the harmless Benjamin Middenbock who was killed when a parachutist landed on him while he was practicing his fly fishing technique in the back garden.
  • Mick Stranahan, 53, lives on an island on the edge of the Atlantic with no landline, satellite dish or computer. Mick has been married six times because every time a woman let him sleep with her he fell hopelessly in love and proposed. Five of them were waitresses. Of course the fact that he was a state prosecutor means that, as he and Joey set out to discover why Chaz tried to murder her, he can call in favours from cops and lawyers within the system, just as he did in Skin Tight – very handy for moving the plot along.
  • Charles Regis Perrone is a handsome lazy selfish bastard. The novel describes how he lucked through a biology degree at university, during which he came to realise he hated nature. He paid for a post-graduate qualification to a correspondence course academy and then was offered a job by a cosmetics company as a ‘biostitute’, a guy with a science qualification who can lie about corporate products. In this case it was cosmetics, Perrone assuring various regulatory bodies that his employer’s products were not in the slightest carcinogenic or damaging (p.67). Chaz is tall, handsome and well groomed so makes a positive impression on any juries he’s called to appear in front of. He is also obsessed with sex. His character revolves around his penis, if he can’t come at least once a day, he feels wretched and the novel spends a disconcerting amount of time devoted to the state of Chaz’s penis, with frequent descriptions of him masturbating to various types of porn (wanking ‘with simian zest’, p.407). It emerges that more or less any time he and Joey went for a car journey, Chaz would put the George Thorogood track ‘Bad To The Bone’ on the CD player and expect Joey to give him a blowjob, getting very cross if she wouldn’t. It is a major comic trope that, after he has murdered his wife and returned to ‘normal’ life, Chaz discovers to his horror that, for the first time in his life, he cannot get an erection, although he tries with long-time mistress Ricca and with an old lover, Medea, a humming reflexologist (p.214). So he buys some bootleg viagra which makes him hard as a rock, but in another crude irony, he can’t feel anything down there. Either way, no joy. Even festooning his bathroom with porn and giving it all he’s got results in nothing. Murdering his wife has made Chaz impotent. Damn!
  • Charles’s mom is a Christian and tried to keep Chaz on the straight and narrow (p.314). She married a retired British RAF officer named Roger.
  • Detective Karl Rolvaag is sent to meet the supposedly distraught husband Chaz off the boat when it docks and immediately knows something is wrong from Chaz’s nervous replies. Karl is from Minneapolis, he moved to Florida because his wife was sick of the cold, but they got divorced and now Karl is sick of the sickos and slimeballs he has to deal with every day. So throughout the novel we see him drafting then handing in his notice to his boss, Captain Gallo. Karl is made considerably more interesting by the fact that he keeps two enormous pet pythons which eat the rats he brings home to them from a pet shop in a shoebox. His elderly neighbours in the Sawgrass Grove Condominium (p.236), who all keep horrible little chihuahuas and poodles,  for example, weedy, whiny Mrs Shulman (p.104) have got wind of this and are campaigning to have him evicted.
  • Captain Gallo, Karl’s boss has several girlfriends on the go at any one time and so is inclined to overlook adultery and infidelity as motives for serious crimes.

The key to the plot

Mick and Joey just don’t understand why Chaz killed her. If he’d gone off her, why not the traditional American route of divorce? About page 200 we discover what the whole thing is about. To adapt a phrase, and as so often in Hiaasen, ‘it’s the environment, stupid’.

They discover that Chaz had been hired by Red Hammernut, CEO of an enormous agribusiness. Besides working illegal immigrant labour for slave wages. Hammernut’s businesses are sluicing off hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste water, highly polluted with fertiliser and pesticides, into the Everglades National Park. Chemical levels in the water are monitored by the state. When Chaz bullshits his way into a meeting with Hammernut, he quickly persuades the boss man that he (Chaz) is precisely the kind of slick, well-presented, amoral, lying shitbucket that Hammernut needs to fake his water runoff figures (pages 173, 285, 342).

So Hammernut pays for Chaz to do a post-graduate degree in wetland management and then arranges, through well-targeted bribery, to have him placed on the state water monitoring agency, where Chaz starts to slowly massage the figures down, until the waste runoff levels are so low that Hammernut (with heavy irony) wins an environmental award.

Chaz’s superior at the Florida State water survey agency is Marta, who puts in a few random appearances, scaring Chaz that she might be going to do her own analyses of the samples, and that he will be unmasked as a paid fraud (p.230) although, in the end, it’s not that which brings him down.

Hammernut pays Chaz bribe money, buys him a big Humvee, and promises him a bright future as a corporate shill in a few years’ time, if he plays his cards right.

Where does Joey come into all this? Well, Chaz never told her a thing about his job, dropping only vague generalisations about working for state water. One day she was scheduled to fly out of the state to visit friends, but it was raining when she got to the airport and, being superstitious about flying, she turned round and drove home and… discovered Chaz with his fake water reading charts tacked up all over the living room.

Chaz was furious and sent her out the room and accused her of spying on him. She of course had no idea what he was talking about, and quickly forgot the silly row, but Chaz didn’t. It eats away at him and eventually he becomes convinced that Joey knows and is just waiting for the next time she catches him messaging a mistress, before she goes to the cops and spills the beans, leading to Chaz and Hammernut going to gaol, the end of his career, the end of his future.

That is the state of mind in which Chaz decided that the only solution to the Joey problem wasn’t a mere divorce, but to do away with Joey altogether (the thought process described on page 277).

The main plot development – blackmailing Chaz

Mick and Joey agree they will not inform the authorities that Joey is alive i.e. they will let the coastguard and the cops, specifically Karl Rolvaag, continue to believe she’s dead. In particular they will very much let Chaz believe he succeeded in murdering Joey. BUT they quickly conceive the idea of screwing with his head in as many ways as they can conceive. For example, a few days after she was pushed overboard, and she has recovered from exposure and sea burn, Joey returns to her family house when Chaz is out and is disgusted to discover that he has already cleared out all her dresses and clothes and make-up. He’s even let the ornamental fish in the aquarium die.

So Joey has fun by a) choosing just one dress from the boxes of them Chaz has stashed in the garage and hanging it prominently in the otherwise empty closet; and finding an old photo of them as a happy couple, cutting out her own face, and slipping the photo under his pillows.

But they don’t stop there, and the second half of the novel is driven by Joey and Mick’s idea of creating a hoax blackmailer who they claim witnessed Chaz pushing Joey over the rail. Mick makes phone calls to Chaz at all times of day and night, pretending to have witnessed the murder on the ship, threatening him with exposure to the cops. They even go so far as to create a mock-up video of the fatal event, shot at night, from a distance, in which Mick uses a wig to double for Chaz, and they do it on a deck with a lifeboat immediately beneath which Joey can tumble safely into.

Mick also calls in a favour from his brother in law, Kipper Garth, who we last saw getting dinged in the head with a jai alai puck by a jealous husband in the earlier novel. Now he specialises in TV adverts for accident litigation, motoring around in his wheelchair to drum up sympathy. Mick bullies Garth into signing a fake will for Joey, in which she claims to have made over her entire fortune (which is, we are told, worth some $14 million) to Chaz (p.196).

As we’ve seen, getting his hands on Joey’s inheritance was not the direct motive for Chaz tossing Joey overboard, but when Mick hands this fake will to Detective Rogvaal it instantly provides the exact kind of motivation for the crime which the detective had been looking for.

This campaign of persecution drives Chaz into increasing hysteria, and to make all kinds of terrible errors of judgement. In a comic scene a feverishly over-wrought Chaz accuses stolid Norwegian detective Rolvaag of being the blackmailer (by this time, half way through the book, Rolvaag is convinced Chaz murdered his wife but has no evidence to go on and, of course, doesn’t know she’s alive).

In a comic move, when Mick checks in for a haircut with Chaz’s lover Ricca, and slowly reveals to her not that Joey fell overboard accidentally (as Chaz had told her) but that Chaz murdered his wife. When, later that evening, Ricca, in shock, confronts Chaz with this accusation, he drives her out to the remote perimeter of the Everglades and tries to shoot her dead (although he’s so useless with guns that he  only wings her and she is able to limp off at speed through the swamp before Chaz can finish her off) (chapter 21).

Characters part 2

Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut (p.244) is a crooked farm tycoon who owns large vegetable fields in Hendry County, north of the Florida Everglades, which he relentlessly pollutes with fertiliser run-off. He bankrolls Chaz through a PhD in wetland ecology, gets him a job on the state water agency, and secretly pays him to fake the results. Red is a stumpy, red-faced man, ‘a goblin’, a shrewd operator who takes no nonsense. He has made big financial contributions to both US political parties, as evidenced by the signed photos of presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton in his office, and in return he calls in favours and uses political influence to evade state supervision of the slave labour conditions he keeps his immigrant workers in.

On page 120 we are introduced to Tool (real name Earl Edward O’Toole (p.241) an enormous, educationally sub-normal mountain of a man who is Hammernut’s fixer or goon. Each Hiaasen novel generally features one grotesque lowlife and Tool plays this role in this novel. Tool’s body hair is so thick and matted that he goes round topless and everyone thinks he’s wearing a pullover. Tool was shot some time ago by a poacher who mistook him for a bear and the bullet lodged in his coccyx where it gives him continual pain. Thus his bizarre habit, which is sneaking into old people’s homes or hospices and stealing painkiller patches off sleeping old people (e.g. p.183).

His second bizarre habit is stopping whatever he’s driving whenever he sees one of those commemorative crosses by the side of the road where someone has had an accident, digging it up and taking it back to his trailer, outside Labelle, not far from Lake Okeechobee. Here, behind his trailer, he has a well-tended field full of 70 or so white crosses (p.121).

Tool has already proved his use kicking, punching and slave-driving ‘beanies’ i.e. illegal immigrants, on Hammernut’s huge agricultural holdings. Hammernut has now recruited him to run special errands, often involving hurting or killing anyone who stands in Hammernut’s way.

So when Chaz informs Hammernut that someone is trying to blackmail him and this has the potential to blow their water-tampering operation wide open, Hammernut sends Tool to watch over Chaz, at first in a car parked opposite his house – until Tool freaks out some of the neighbours, at which point he is ordered to move into Chaz’s spare room. At which point begins an extremely tortuous love-hate relationship between the pair which features frequent fights, casual beatings and, at the climax of the novel, a murderous shootout.

Rose Jewell is a friend of Joey’s from her book club (p.141). Mick and Joey let her in on the secret that Joey is still alive and get her to seduce Chaz, inviting him round to her place, where she slips out and lets Joey slip into bed in her place, thus allowing Joey, when she starts talking, to deliver Chaz the fright of his life!

Maureen. When Tool walks into the Elysian Manor hospice he checks out all the rooms looking for sleeping old people whose painkiller patches he can steal, and sneaks up to one particularly frail looking old lady lying on her side, but… the old lady turns and whacks him! Surprised, Tool reproaches her, she tells him her name is Maureen, she is 81 (p.258), asks him to draw up a chair, and they get chatting. And over the rest of the book, Tool returns several times to chat to Maureen, and she listens and gives support, tells him not to cuss, to wash his mouth out and, crucially, that it’s never too late to reform.

And by the book’s end Tool does indeed become a reformed character. So much so that the Big Gruesome Scene which tends to feature in every Hiaasen novel comes when Tool’s conscience tells him to turn on  his boss. Hammernut has repeatedly insulted and abused Tool for screwing up his tasks, the final one of which is to take Chaz out to a remote part of the Everglades and shoot him (which Tool, mindful of Maureen’s moral advice, decides not to do). Having refused to do that (and let Chaz escape off through the swamps) Hammernut totally loses his temper when Tool stops the truck to get out and dig up one of his damn roadside crosses. But it’s the final straw for Tool, too, who finally snaps, seizes the big wooden stake out of the ground, raises it above his head and slams it down, driving the stake through Hammernut’s rotten heart (p.449). There. Gruesome enough for you?

Skink

Skink, the demented eco-vigilante who has appeared in most of the previous novels, appears here, too! He makes two big appearances. First, when he hears gunshots and comes to the rescue of Ricca after Chaz has driven her deep into the outback and tried and failed to shoot her dead. Skink rescues and looks after her, cleans the wound and delivers her safely to a highway (p.327 ff.).

Second time, right at the end of the novel, where Hammernut and Tool drive Chaz out to the same kind of outback location and Hammernut orders Tool to execute Chaz with a shotgun but Tool, a changed man due to Maureen’s moral lessons, deliberately misses. It’s on the drive back that a furious Hammernut finally goads Tool so hard that the big man transfixes him with a stake (p.449).

But a terrified Chaz has meanwhile made off into the muddy swamp and that is where he encounters Skink (p.471) who quickly realises this is the very same sleazebag who tried to shoot Ricca. Punishment will be according to the crime and the novel ends with the heavy threat that Chaz’s life is about to become very unpleasant indeed…

Environmentalism

Hiaasen gives serious journalistic accounts of the history of the pollution and degradation of the vast Everglades on pages 127 and 449 which are very depressing. We learn that the Everglades are being destroyed at the rate of about 2 acres per day.

Omnicompetent narrator

Once again I was dazzled by the narrator’s total knowledge. I think one of the unstated appeals of Hiaasen’s novels is that the narrator knows everything about everything. Nothing is in doubt, nothing is uncertain. Every article in the world has a name, every manmade product has a brand name and a measurement and a year of production and the narrator can name it and assess its state. Every animal is known and named, every action has a name. Everything is stated plainly because there is no ambiguity or grey areas. Language is a tool of precision knowledge.

This was crystallised for me by the following paragraphs which aren’t particularly important to the plot, but demonstrate what I mean.

Hank and Lana Wheeler lived in Elko, Nevada, where they owned a prosperous casino resort that featured a Russian dancing-bear act. The bears were raised and trained by a semi-retired dominatrix who billed herself as Ursa Major. (p.30)

Now at first glance this is the comedy of the amusingly bizarre. The mere idea that a casino has dancing bears is colourful and the bear tamer’s name is a nifty joke. But what really got me was the way everything about the situation is completely known. The narrator knows exactly what the couple are named, where they live, what they do, and give us the most colourful salient detail of their profession. I’ve got real life friends who I’ve known for decades and I don’t really know what their jobs are but there’s none of that real-world uncertainty or ambiguity about anything in Hiaasen. Every single aspect of the story, every character, has a bright spotlight shone on them and every salient fact about them is reported in crisp, factual sentences. He continues the passage in the same vein:

Over time the Wheelers had become fond of Ursa and treated her as kin. When one of her star performers, a 425-pound neutered Asiatic named Boris, developed an impacted bicuspid, the Wheelers chartered a Gulfstream jet to transport the animal to a renowned periodontic veterinarian at Lake Tahoe. Hank and Lana went along for moral support, and also to sneak in some spring skiing.

That’s a dazzling paragraph. For a start I’m impressed by the way the narrator and all the characters in this book immediately know each other’s weights to the exact pound. Karl knows Mrs Shulman weighs 90 pounds (p.104). Joey knows she weighs 131 pounds (p.141). It’s a supernatural gift which crops up in all American thrillers, this wonderful weight knowledge, which I’ve never encountered any real person possessing.

Next the bear doesn’t get sick or become poorly, no: it develops ‘an impacted bicuspid’. Do you know what that is? Me neither. See what I mean about laser-like precision with facts.

Next I am dazzled that the couple can charter a private jet. Obviously I’ve never chartered a private jet and I don’t know anyone who has. I will go to my grave well outside this level of affluence and confidence. Just as obviously Hiaasen names the make of jet for the simple rule that no product must go unnamed.

And then they take the bear to a ‘periodontic’ vet. Do you know what a periodontic vet is? Me neither. I’ve got a vet down the road for my cat, but I just call her ‘the vet’. What is periodontism? Everything in the narrative, everything, functions at a level of knowledge and expertise waaaay above any level I’ve ever encountered.

Which is capped off by the way the couple take advantage of their little trip to get in some spring skiing. Wow. What a life! I live in London and if you go skiing, it means you’re going to the Alps in the winter season, to meet up with thousands of other braying bankers.

Taken together, these two paragraphs exemplified, for me, the way the entire narrative acts with a level of effortless expertise and calmly accepted wealth that I find breath-taking.

So my point is that, the hilariously complicated plot and the usual 20 or so comically slimebucket Hiaasen characters dominate the reading experience so much that it’s easy to forget that the novel itself, on every page, showcases a level of wealth and glamorous lifestyle, superbly confident in the ability to hire private jets and rental cars and speedboats and go on shopping sprees and buy new shoes, new fishing gear, new SUVs, describes a dazzling lifestyle unattainable for any of us living in boring third world England. The plot may be pure escapism, but so is the entire world it describes.

Abbreviating the language

I noticed in the previous Hiaasen novels, and began to actively mark up in this one, examples of a distinctive linguistic development which I don’t think I’ve seen before, or not so widely used.

As part of the narrator’s omnicompetence, he not only knows the names for everything and the words for every possible human action, but he has a habit of abbreviating words to make them short, one-syllable, effective tools – shorter, snappier, cooler. Examples will show what I mean:

  • when the sailing of the cruise ship is delayed because a frothing raccoon gets loose, ‘a capture team’ from the local animal control bureau is sent in
  • ‘the grave-spoken newscaster’ – surely ‘gravely-spoken’
  • ‘the dirt roads were tearing up the shocks on his midsize Chevy’ (p.108) we would say ‘shock absorbers’
  • ‘Flamingo was a fish camp…’ – surely fishing camp (p.253)
  • ‘four years on the college swim team’ (p.321) swimming
  • ‘the man devoured everything else in the fry pan’ (p.328) frying
  • ‘wearing a knit watch cap’ (p.332) knitted
  • ‘so they could rest on the dive platform’ (p.440) diving

It’s as if Americans are just in so much of a hurry to take their opioids or destroy their environment or shoot some more black men that they don’t have time to say goddam long words. Keep it short. Fish camp, swim school, tote bag. Why waste unnecessary breath on all those goddam long words?

When…

A comedy formula has cropped up enough times in the past few novels, to make the reader suspect Hiaasen is playing a game with himself or a friend. The idea is to generate comedy variations on the thought ‘when hell freezes over’ using unlikely animals. Thus, in this novel, something unlikely will happen:

  • when goats learn ballet (p.134)
  • if fish had tits (p.334)
  • maybe someday crows will play lacrosse (p.350)

Credit

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen was published by Bantam Press in 2004. All references are to the 2005 Black Swan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)
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