The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (1948)

‘Pardon me. Aren’t you the friend of the strangulated Loved One in the Orchid Room? My memory’s very bad for live faces.’
(Miss Aimée Thanatogenos in The Loved One, page 70)

In Hollywood with Dennis Barlow

We are in the British expat community in Hollywood, California. Dennis Barlow is 28 (p.33). He was a budding poet back in Britain but was lured to Hollywood on the promise of extending his literary potential and making a lot of money. However, he didn’t like the life of a lackey to the Megalopolitan film studio. ‘He repined, despaired, fled,’ and got a (poorly paid) job at a pet cemetery (The Happier Hunting Ground) run by fast-talking, business-minded Mr Schultz, working alongside brisk Miss Poski. Here, grateful Americans pay to have their pet cats, dogs, parrots, goats and many other species embalmed, stuffed, buried or cremated. They like Dennis because:

‘They find me reverent. It is my combination of melancholy with the English accent. Several of our clientele have commented favourably upon it.’

Sir Francis Hinsley

Since he moved to Hollywood, Dennis has lived with Sir Francis Hinsley. A generation earlier Sir Francis had been the only Brit with a knighthood in Hollywood, ‘the doyen of English society, chief script-writer in Megalopolitan Pictures* and President of the Cricket Club.’ Twenty-plus years later his career has not prospered. He now works in the lowly studio press department and the swimming pool which used to flash with the shining limbs of lovely young starlets is now ‘cracked and over-grown with weed’ (an entirely coincidental but slightly eerie overlap with the dominant image from J.G. Ballard’s short stories).

(* Mention of Megalopolitan Pictures will remind anyone who’s read Waugh’s short stories that this is the name of the fictional film company mentioned in the 1932 short story lampooning the British film industry, ‘Excursion in Reality’. Even in relatively small details like this, Waugh reused names and characters which, cumulatively, go to create the strong sense of a parallel comic universe. If the shabby world of seedy sin and sweaty guilt portrayed by Graham Greene came to be called Greeneland, surely Waugh’s use of recurring comic names and characters throughout his oeuvre helped to create WaughWorld.)

‘Juanita del Pablo’

Hinsley’s most recent triumph is the PR creation of a new star, ‘Juanita del Pablo.’ That isn’t her real name, her real name is Baby Aaronson. She was spotted by a director for her eyes, and handed over to Hinsley to mould. So he changed her name, got her plastic surgery to make her look more Hispanic and got her flamenco lessons. Unfortunately, a few movies into her career and the League of Decency has cracked down on immoral films i.e. ones which include passionate Hispanic babes. Now Irish women are all the rage, so Hinsley’s getting ‘Juanita’s hair dyed auburn, they’ve pulled out all her teeth and given her dentures to help her learn Irish brogue. Hinsley is sitting on the verandah of his rundown bungalow with Dennis trying to decide on a suitably Irish name for his remodelled creation.

Sir Ambrose Abercrombie

Thus the narrative opens when Sir Francis and Dennis are enjoying a sundowner at the end of another arid scorching California day. Another venerable Brit pops by. This is Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, who ‘used to bounce about the lots in his famous series of fatiguing roles, acrobatic, heroic, historic, and come almost nightly to Sir Francis for refreshment’. His career has continued to thrive and he is now very much President of the Cricket Club and acknowledged head of the English expat community. He very very much disapproves of Dennis taking a job at the pet cemetery. Lets the side down, very bad form.

Sir Francis is fired by his studio…

The plot, such as it is, kicks in when, a few week later, Sir Francis makes a presentation to the assembled board of the studio, reading out his press release for Juanita’s new Irish backstory and profile. It goes down badly and, as soon as he’s left the room, the execs agree to hand the project over to someone else. For a few more days Francis works from home with the studio secretary. Then one day she fails to turn up. He makes a few calls to the studio, finds himself put off and batted around various secretaries, then finally pops into the studio, to discover his office has been given to someone else (with thumping satire, named ‘Lorenzo Medici’), his name removed from the door, his stuff chucked in a skip, and that he has been fired, without anyone having the guts or decency to tell him.

… and hangs himself

Dennis comes home late from work to discover Sir Francis has hanged himself on the stairs. He has to cut him down and call the cops. It is Sir Francis’s death which triggers the main content of the book, which is Dennis’s visit to the largest cemetery and morticians in Los Angeles, the famed Whispering Glades.

Whispering Glades Memorial Park

There is some attempt at fictionalisation but the long passage which dominates the first half of this short book reads almost like a piece of magazine journalism, as Dennis is given a guided tour of the cemetery by a series of immaculately presented, polite and efficient young women, who talk him (and the reader) through every possible variety of service and product which the cemetery offers, for example: is the body to be embalmed, buried or cremated? In fact, in the words of the soft-spoken and sensitive guide:

‘Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment. That is very individual. The casket is placed inside a sealed sarcophagus, marble or bronze, and rests permanently above ground in a niche in the mausoleum, with or without a personal stained-glass window above. That, of course, is for those with whom price is not a primary consideration.’ (p.37)

Is there to be a funeral service, in which case which denomination, Protestant, nonconformist, Catholic, Jewish or other? Will the body be displayed for mourners, in which case full body lying on a sofa, or in a casket, casket half closed, casket only revealing the face? What should the body be wearing, formal attire or did he or she have favourite clothes? Holding symbolic objects, for example a favourite toy, if it’s a child, or a flower to symbolise peace? In which part of the cemetery should the body be buried, in a family plot or Pilgrims’ Rest, in Lovers’ Nest or on the beautiful Lake Isle or, if a writer, in Poets’ Corner?

Throughout the presentation the winsome young lady uses the phrase The Loved One rather than the deceased, the body, the corpse – ‘The Loved One’ and the repetition of this phrase begins to give it a noumenal, rather unreal charge.

We learn that Whispering Glades was founded by a Wilbur Kenworthy who had a dream of presenting the dead to their mourners as happy and at peace, and so is reverently referred to by his employees as The Dreamer. (By the way, just as the deceased is referred to as The Loved One, so the the mourners, relatives and so on of the deceased are uniformly referred to as The Waiting Ones.)

This is all very entertaining (although note the way, that as with so much Waugh, it is also deeply factual; as I the smooth sales patter of the cemetery’s sales woman went on and on it began to make me think about my own funeral arrangements i.e. I don’t have any, and whether I ought to make some).

Identikit American young women

But at one point in the tour the saleswoman hands over to a cosmetician and something happens: Dennis is smitten by her. Part of the reason reads, nowadays, as pretty controversial. It is because she is different, different from the identikit appearance of so many many young American women which Dennis (and Waugh) note, lament and satirise – and he goes on to describe the way post-war America was covered by identikit lookalike stewardesses and hostesses and waitresses and so on. Of the saleswoman who’s brought him this far, he writes:

She left the room and Dennis at once forgot everything about her. He had seen her before everywhere. American mothers, Dennis reflected, presumably knew their daughters apart, as the Chinese were said subtly to distinguish one from another of their seemingly uniform race, but to the European eye the Mortuary Hostess was one with all her sisters of the air-liners and the reception-desks, one with Miss Poski at the Happier Hunting Ground. She was the standard product. A man could leave such a girl in a delicatessen shop in New York, fly three thousand miles and find her again in the cigar stall at San Francisco, just as he would find his favourite comic strip in the local paper; and she would croon the same words to him in moments of endearment and express the same views and preferences in moments of social discourse. She was convenient… (p.45)

Obviously, young #metoo feminists might read this as an objectifying, degrading description, typical male condescension etc, and there is obviously something to this. But you could turn it right around and say that Waugh had noticed, and was satirising, precisely the ‘honey I’m home’ identikit model of American womanhood which feminists of the 1960s protested against and are still protesting against. Later on, Waugh repeats the same sort of idea i.e. the way American women in particular were slaves to American consumerism and advertising.

[She] spoke the tongue of Los Angeles; the sparse furniture of her mind—the objects which barked the intruder’s shins—had been acquired at the local High School and University; she presented herself to the world dressed and scented in obedience to the advertisements; brain and body were scarcely distinguishable from the standard product. (p.105)

Miss Aimée Thanatogenos, cosmetician

Anyway, the cosmetician that the standard-model guide and hostess hands Dennis over to is not a ‘standard product’, she is more rare and refined and individual, less plastered in just the right make-up. Waugh gives her Greek parentage and the comic name Aimée Thanatogenos and Dennis falls in love with her. The only snag is that Aimée Thanatogenos adores the most senior figure at Whispering Glades, the head embalmer, the fabulously named Mr Joyboy. What a great name. A truly great piece of comic invention.

Mr Joyboy, chief embalmer

Mr Joyboy is not handsome or attractive but he is a master at his trade.

Mr Joyboy was not a handsome man by the standards of motion-picture studios. He was tall but unathletic. There was lack of shape in his head and body, a lack of colour; he had scant eyebrows and invisible eyelashes; the eyes behind his pince-nez were pinkish-grey; his hair, though neat and scented, was sparse; his hands were fleshy; his best feature was perhaps his teeth and they though white and regular seemed rather too large for him; he was a trifle flat-footed and more than a trifle paunchy. But these physical defects were nugatory when set against his moral earnestness and the compelling charm of his softly resonant voice.

Mr Joyboy can make any corpse, no matter how mangled, appear beautiful and serene for its resting in state. Not only that but when he arrived at Whispering Glades he brought new manners and decorousness to the operation. Under the previous head cosmetician the trolleymen referred to corpses and stiffs and even the ‘dead meat’. Under Mr Joyboy all such disrespect was scrupulously banned. He not only is a master cosmetician, he enforces respect and courtesy wherever he goes. And so that is why Miss Aimée Thanatogenos adores him.

Now, the plot is padded out with various events, for example Sir Ambrose takes charge of the funeral arrangements and commissions Dennis to research materials for Sir Ambrose’s eulogy and to write a poem in honour of the deceased, so there is quite a lot of bother about Dennis going through the dead man’s books and looking for inspiration.

(By the way, I was expecting to get a description of Sir Francis’s funeral, complete with comic caricatures of Hollywood types, but Waugh resists the temptation and the funeral is barely even mentioned, glossed over in order to get on with the plot.)

Encounter on the Isle of Rest

But the real core of the story is the way Dennis, a genuinely sensitive soul, becomes fascinated by the setup at the Whispering Glades and obsessed by Aimée Thanatogenos. Their interaction is crystallised when he finds himself wandering into the Glades and taking the ferry to the Isle of Rest, there to lie down amid the sound of the bees (a recording emitted from loudspeakers hidden in the mock bee hives) and bumps into Aimée Thanatogenos who has come there for her lunch break. They chat, he finds out more about her, he starts sending her poems.

Dennis’s purloined poems

Admittedly, in a nice comic touch, they’re not poems written by him but cherry-picked from anthologies of English verse although, in another comic touch, Dennis quickly discovers that most of the well-known English poems are unsuitable for plain and simple wooing:

Nearly all were too casual, too despondent, too ceremonious, or too exacting; they scolded, they pleaded, they extolled. Dennis required salesmanship; he sought to present Aimée with an irresistible picture not so much of her own merits or even of his, as of the enormous gratification he was offering. The films did it; the crooners did it; but not, it seemed, the English poets. (p.84)

Miss Thanatogenos consults the Guru Brahmin

Anyway, poor Miss Thanatogenos finds herself torn between dawning feelings for her ardent if sometimes incomprehensible English suitor and her adoration of the older expert in her field, with the result, that in a further comic/satirical strand, she writes a series of querulous letters to a well-known Los Angeles agony aunt:

Once, in days of family piety, it bore the title Aunt Lydia’s Post Bag; now it was The Wisdom of the Guru Brahmin, adorned with the photograph of a bearded and almost naked sage. (p.80)

With predictable inevitability, we are told that the daily column and sensitive replies of this woman agony aunt are, in fact, churned out by two overworked, harrassed, middle-aged hacks.

The Guru Brahmin was two gloomy men and a bright young secretary. One gloomy man wrote the column, the other, a Mr Slump, dealt with the letters which required private answers. (p.93)

Promotion and dinner with Mr Joyboy

Her situation becomes further complicated when Mr Joyboy makes a move on her, to her surprise, dismay and bewilderment. First of all he gives her the frabjous news that the owner of Whispering Glades has decided it is high time it had its first woman embalmer and that Mr Joyboy has recommended her, Miss Thanatogenos, for the role (p.86).

But she is even more thrilled when he modestly and chastely asks if she would do him the honour of dining with him this evening to celebrate. Miss Thanatogenos excitedly accepts, dashing off yet another note to the two disgruntled hacks who go by the name of Guru Brahmin and are beginning to get fed up of her continual requests for advice about her love life.

In the event, the dinner clarifies a lot of things because, eminent in his field and wonderfully competent though he may be, Mr Joyboy is, at the end of the day, just an embalmer in a morticians, not that well paid, and so lives in a very average seedy house in an estate far out on the edge of town with his mother who keeps a crapulous parrot (Sambo) and whines and criticises throughout their shabby meal (tinned noodle soup, a bowl of salad with tinned crab compounded in it, ice-cream and coffee, p.91). Mr Joyboy compounds his crassness by not driving her home but turning her out and telling her a street car back into town runs from the corner. Oh what disappointment!

Miss Thanatogenos becomes engaged to Dennis

As you might imagine, this bitter disappointment makes Miss Aimée Thanatogenos reconsider Dennis as a prospect. At the same time we see Dennis asking the owner of Happier Hunting Grounds for a raise. When Mr Schultz roughly turns him down, Dennis buttonholes the minister performing the funeral of their latest customer (a much-loved Alsatian) how you get into the minister racket and how well it pays. Not very well at all, replies the mournful minister (p.97).

Later that day, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos leads Dennis to one of the many fake chapels and churches scattered around the vast grounds of Whispering Glades, this one a fake Scottish kirk near which is situated a solid granite bench with a heart-shaped hole cut out and a snatch of love poetry. Miss Aimée Thanatogenos makes Dennis solemnly repeat the verse and then they kiss through the big heart-shaped hole. They regard themselves as engaged.

Mr Joyboy sulks

Alas, from that day onwards Mr Joyboy, who had always had a kind world for Miss Aimée Thanatogenos and always gave the corpses she was to paint and finalise an extra special smile, becomes distant and sulky. The corpses no longer have the same smiles. He is himself disappointed, and jealous.

But one day Miss Aimée Thanatogenos makes a special effort to be nice to Mr Joyboy who responds by telling her his mother has experienced a bitter tragedy, her old parrot has passed away and she is inconsolable. Mr Joyboy has gone to the trouble of arranging a funeral for the parrot at the Happier Hunting Ground pet cemetery and invites Miss Aimée Thanatogenos to join them.

Oops. That’s where Dennis works. And once or twice during their engagement, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos has casually let slip that she disapproves of the Happier Hunting Ground and the way it applies to mere animals the ceremony and respect which should be reserved for humans. Although she was introduced to us as an exception to the identikit young American woman, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos is portrayed as every bit as inflexibly moral and high-minded as her devout women ancestors and zealous feminist descendants.

Moreover, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos shows Mr Joyboy a poem Dennis has ‘written’ for her and he is impressed and promises to show it to a writer he knows, to see if it can be published. Oops. We know all of them are simply copied from The Oxford Book of English Verse.

We are now only 20 pages from the end so I expected the narrative to lead up to the comic scene when Miss Aimée Thanatogenos attends the funeral of Mrs Joyboy’s parrot and is shocked to discover that her fiancé works at the despised pet cemetery, has lied to her and might even, with his numerous questions about Whispering Glades, have been just pumping her for commercial tricks and technique all along. Except I was wrong. Like the funeral scene I was expecting, the Big Reveal scene is omitted, and glossed over in a sentence, announcing that Miss Aimée Thanatogenos is so shocked that, in the words of the raddled old hacks who write the Brahmin Guru column, ‘she marries the other guy’.

The engagement of Dennis and Aimée had never been announced in any paper and needed no public denial. The engagement of Mr Joyboy and Aimée had a column-and-a-half in the Morticians Journal and a photograph in The Casket, while the house-journal, Whispers from the Glades, devoted nearly an entire issue to the romance. A date was fixed for the wedding at the University Church. Mr Joyboy had been reared a Baptist and the minister who buried the Baptist dead gladly offered his services. The wardrobe-mistress found a white slumber-robe for the bride. Dr Kenworthy intimated his intention of being there in person. The corpses who came to Aimée for her ministrations now grinned with triumph. (p.106)

This is genius not only because it’s funny, but because of the crispness of the prose. There is no fat. Each comic aspect of the situation is briskly and lucidly described.

Encounter at the nutburger bar

Dennis doesn’t even realise he’s been dumped till he follows Miss Aimée Thanatogenos to a nutburger bar and asks why she hasn’t been returning his calls. She explains a) he lied about the poems b) he lied about working at Happier Hunting Grounds c) he’s an awful person and d) Mrs Joyboy’s dead parrot looked awful in its tiny casket with its head lying on a pillow.

Once he’s grasped the situation, Dennis replies with a barrage of arguments and self justification, none of which sticks till he almost at random mentions the silly vow they took at the Scottish Kirk. To his surprise, this hits home and Miss Aimée Thanatogenos is quelled. In her American dimness, she thinks this is a real, enduring vow and is suddenly struck silent as Dennis drives her home and pulls up outside her flat.

Mr Joyboy fails to offer comfort

Dennis drives off and Miss Aimée Thanatogenos phones her new fiancé, Mr Joyboy, for comfort and reassurance. But she can barely hear him for the tremendous racket in the background. Mr Joyboy’s mother has bought a new parrot and is breaking him in. Miss Aimée Thanatogenos pleads for his time, pleads to see him, but Joyboy persists in saying that at a time like this his mother needs him. It is a new parrot.

Mr Slump counsels suicide

Thoroughly disillusioned, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos next phones the news paper which publishes the Brahmin Guru. It’s the evening so the receptionist tells him the column is written by several gentlemen, she can probably reach Mr Slump at Mooney’s Saloon, so she gets the number and calls him there. The bartender takes the call and hands over the phone. Now as bad luck would have it, Mr Slump, who has been drinking more and more and turning up later and later for work, has been fired just that very day. When Miss Aimée Thanatogenos begins blathering about her love life down the phone he lays the receiver on the counter, takes a drink, orders another drink, and chats to his neighbour till the tinny little voice has quite finished. Picks up the receiver to hear Miss Aimée Thanatogenos pitifully asking what she should do. Take a lift, Mr Slump tells her, to the top of your building then throw yourself off, then hangs up.

Miss Aimée Thanatogenos commits suicide

Miss Aimée Thanatogenos takes some sleeping pills and sleeps till dawn. She wakes, dresses and walks the short distance to Whispering Glades, goes in the staff entrance, sits by the lawn watching them change colour as dawn comes up. Then enters the building, goes to the main workroom, finds a big bottle of poison and injects herself with it. It is cyanide. She dies.

Mr Joyboy comes blubbing

Next morning Mr Joyboy arrives at the Happier Hunting Ground to break the news to Dennis. Dennis had hardened his heart against Miss Aimée Thanatogenos so is not that upset. Joyboy blames him – Dennis brushes aside his accusations – Joyboy wants Dennis to help him dispose of the body before the owner of Whispering Glades finds it. Might be difficult to explain away. Dennis says he’ll think about it and sends him away.

Sir Ambrose makes Dennis an offer

Far funnier is the surprise news that Dennis has quit the Happier Hunting Ground. Without too much effort he has managed to qualify as a non-denominational priest or minister, and has sent round to the British expat community a card announcing the services of ‘Squadron Leader the Rev. Dennis Barlow’.

This brings Sir Ambrose briskly to his door to tell him that working at a pet cemetery was one thing but this, deer boy, this is quite another. It simply won’t do. In the current fraught political situation, it reflects very badly on the old country. Slowly they fence and negotiate and it emerges that the Cricket Club have had a whip-round to pay for Dennis’s ticket home – and that Dennis was expecting precisely this to happen. In fact Sir Ambriose has arrived with a cheque made out to Dennis for travelling expenses which he suavely pockets.

Playing Mr Joyboy

The story ends with Dennis transformed from the sensitive poet obsessed with Whispering Glades and Miss Aimée Thanatogenos and metamorphosed into the confident practical joker / scammer Basil Seal. For when Mr Joyboy returns, still upset and panicking about what to do, Dennis has worked out a very smooth plan.

Problem one, how to dispose of the body? Well, after hours Mr Joyboy must bring Miss Aimée Thanatogenos’s body to the Happier Hunting Ground. As their senior employee, Dennis has free use of the crematorium and they’re often cremating pets who don’t require ceremonies or funerals at all times of day or night. So the staff will leave and he will incinerate Miss Aimée Thanatogenos safely and securely.

Problem two, how to explain Miss Aimée Thanatogenos’s mystery disappearance? Well, everyone knows she had a thing with Dennis and Dennis has abruptly returned to England so all her few acquaintance and workmates need to know is that she’s run off to England with him. Eloped. Unethical but romantic.

Problem three, money. Dennis smoothly extorts $1,000 from Mr Joyboy for performing this service, and tells him to cash Sir Ambrose’s cheque while he’s at the bank.

Cremating Miss Aimée Thanatogenos

And so it is that Dennis drives the Happier Hunting Ground van over to Whispering Glades after dinner and he and Mr Joyboy furtively manhandle a coffin into it. Then he drives them back to the Happier Hunting Ground, they carry the heavy coffin up to the furnace, push it in, turn on the gas and ignite the flames. It will take an hour and a half, and then pulverising the skull, the pelvis and bigger bones, scraping it all into an urn and burying it somewhere. Mr Joyboy departs in disgust.

In a final twist of the satirical knife, Dennis conscientiously makes an entry in the Happier Hunting Ground Book of Remembrance, entering Mr Joyboy as the customer and Aimée as the name of his beloved pet. This means that tomorrow and on every anniversary as long as the Happier Hunting Ground exists a postcard will be sent to Mr Joyboy with the message: Your little Aimée is wagging her tail in heaven tonight, thinking of you.

Unlike so many Englishmen who came hopefully to southern California and failed and broke their hearts and lost all their money, Dennis is leaving triumphant and enriched. What’s more, he will be taking with him back to Blighty a priceless chunk of Experience, of Life, which the artist in him will be able to labour over long and hard. What more could a man ask of life?


Credit

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1948. All references are to the 1971 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan by Michael Ignatieff (2003)

Nobody likes empires but there are some problems for which there are only imperial solutions. (p.11)

Nations sometimes fail, and when they do only outside help – imperial help – can get them back on their feet. (p.106)

A bit of biography

In the 1990s Ignatieff managed to combine being a tenured academic, a journalist making extensive foreign trips, and a TV presenter. Without planning it, Ignatieff fell into a rhythm of publishing every 2 or 3 years short books chronicling the unfolding of the failed states he visited, and the chaos which engulfed some countries after the end of the Cold War.

These short but engaging studies build up into a series of snapshots of the new world disorder unfolding through the 1990s and into the post 9/11 era, mixed with profound meditations on the morality of international affairs and humanitarian intervention:

  • Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism (1994)
  • Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1997)
  • Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (2000)
  • Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (2003)
  • The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2004)
  • The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World (2017)

Ignatieff’s disappearance from British TV and radio around 2000 is explained by the fact that he moved  from London to America to take up a post at Harvard. The gap in the sequence of books listed above is explained by the fact that in 2005 he was persuaded to stand as an MP in the Canadian parliament, that in 2006 was made deputy leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and in 2009 became Liberal Party leader. Under his leadership the Liberals lost badly in the election of 2011 and Ignatieff quit as party leader. He went back to teaching at university, in betweentimes undertaking extended trips to eight non-Western nations which form the basis of his most recent book, The Ordinary Virtues published in 2017.

Empire Lite: Introduction

Three of the four chapters in this book started out as magazine articles published in 2002, so very soon after the seismic shock of 9/11. The premise of the book as a whole is that America is an empire which refuses to acknowledge the fact.

The Americans have had an empire since Teddy Roosevelt, yet persist in believing they do not. (p.1)

But America is not like any previous empire, it doesn’t have direct control of colonies, it is an ’empire lite’, which Ignatieff defines as:

hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration and the risk of daily policing. (p.2)

Nonetheless, America is the only global superpower, spends a fortune on an awesome array of military weapons and resources, and uses these ‘to permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interests’ (p.2). Imperial activities.

In this book Ignatieff sets out to look at the power and, in particular, the limits of America’s informal empire by looking at three locations he knows well and has covered in previous books, in former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Previously he has covered states collapsing into anarchy and attempts to bring peace, now he moves on. This book:

deals with the imperial struggle to impose order once intervention has taken place. (p.vii)

It focuses on the dilemma that many states in the modern world are failed or failing and some kind of intervention is emphatically required – and yet intervention is dogged with problems, notably:

  • the practical limitations of what can be achieved
  • the tension between what the intervening power (almost always America) wants to achieve, and the wishes of the local population

After 9/11

This book was written during the year following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, after George Bush had declared a ‘War on Terror’, and just as America was limbering up to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein on the controversial pretext of confiscating his weapons of mass destruction. This book was completed and sent to the publishers in January 2003 and the invasion of Iraq began on 20 March 2003.

In other words it was conceived and written in a very different climate of opinion than his pre-9/11 works and 9/11 dominates its thinking. Ignatieff says ‘the barbarians’ have attacked the imperial capital and now they are being punished.

And yet he warns that the ‘War on Terror’ may turn into a campaign without end. He quotes Edward Gibbon who, in his history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, attributes the fall to what is nowadays called ‘overstretch’, trying to extend imperial control to regions beyond its natural borders. The Americans cannot control outcomes everywhere. This book sets out to examine the ragged edges where American hegemony reaches its limits.

Ignatieff says the terrorists who attacked on 9/11 co-opted grievances and the rhetoric of Islam into an unabashed act of violence. Violence first, cause later. What is worrying is the huge wave of support they garnered in parts of the Islamic world which feels it has been oppressed and humiliated for generations. It’s not just the obvious example of the Palestinians, oppressed by America’s client state Israel (Ignatieff mentions the pitiful inadequacy of the 1990 ‘peace treaty’ which set up the Palestinian Authority) but of dissident voices all across the Arab world.

9/11 highlighted the limitations of American control in Islamic states. America has poured billions of dollars into Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and yet Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the Pakistanis founded, trained and supervised the Taliban which was giving Al Qaeda hospitality at the time of the attacks. And, as we have seen just a month ago, the Taliban were to prove impossible to extirpate and have just retaken Afghanistan after 20 years of supposed ‘nation building’.

America may have unrivalled power but it has not been able to build stability wherever it wants on its own terms. (p.10)

Problems of empire

Ignatieff bubbles over with ideas and insights. I was struck by his idea that the central problem of empires is deciding which of the many demands for the exercise of its power, it should respond to. This is a fascinating insight to apply to the history of the British Empire, which was a continual one of never having enough resources to properly deal with the endless flare-ups and problems in the numerous countries it claimed to manage. Eventually it became too expensive and too complicated for a country brought to its knees by two world wars, and we walked away. The mystery is how we hung on for so long.

Now the Americans face the same problem. Ignatieff interprets the crisis in Afghanistan as a result of the way the Americans spent ten years lavishly funding and supporting the anti-Soviet resistance (in reality a congeries of regional tribal groupings which we gave the blanket name the mujihadeen). Then, when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, so did the Americans; walking away and letting the highly-armed tribal groups collapse into prolonged civil war, out of which emerged the extremist Taliban who were to give shelter and succour to al-Qaeda ten years later.

Another way of putting this is that America hoped, with the end of the Cold War, to benefit from a ‘peace dividend’: to reduce its armed forces, withdraw from various strategic parts of the world, job done. On the contrary, as Ignatieff’s previous books have shown, imperial withdrawal from countries around the world did not lead to an outburst of peace, love and understanding but to the complete or partial collapse of many states and the emergence of new kinds of conflict, of ethnic wars, ‘ragged wars’, chaotic wars, and widespread destabilisation.

In these zones of chaos have flourished enemies of the West, and of America in particular and now, in 2002, as Ignatieff was writing these pieces, American rulers have to make some very difficult decisions about where to intervene and how much to intervene, and for how long.

Chapter 1. The Bridge Builder

The bridge in question is the bridge over the River Neretva in the centre of the town of Mostar in southern Bosnia. The town actually takes its name from the bridge, which is called the Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Serbo-Croat and the bridge-keepers, known as mostari, who guarded it.

The Stari Most was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks, and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture. It was erected in 1566 on the orders of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin.

During the Yugoslav civil wars Mostar suffered two distinct conflicts: after Bosnia-Herzogovina declared independence in April 1992 the (mostly Serb) Yugoslav Army went in to try and crush its independence. They were opposed by militias set up from both the Croat and Bosnian Muslim population (which both made up about a third of the city’s population). In June 1992 the Croat-Bosniak forces successfully attacked the besieging Yugoslav Army and forced them to withdraw. Lots of shelling and shooting resulted in the town’s historic buildings getting badly knocked about, but not the bridge.

The bridge was destroyed as part of the second conflict, for after jointly seeing off the Serbs, tension  then grew between the Croats and Bosniaks. In October Croats declared the independence of a small enclave which they called ‘the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia’, supported by neighbouring Croatia and this triggered the Croat–Bosniak War which lasted from 18 October 1992 to 23 February 1994.

The Old Bridge was destroyed by Croatian forces on November 9, 1993 during a stand-off between opposing forces on each side of the river. It’s said that more than 60 shells hit the bridge before it collapsed. The collapse of the bridge consolidated the complete ethnic compartmentalisation of the city into Croat west bank and Muslim east bank.

What’s amazing is the enmity that lingered on after the ‘end’ of this small war. The town actually had six bridges and some of the others survived but adult men were forbidden from crossing over to ‘the other’s side. Ignatieff tells the story of a Muslim lad who drove over one of the surviving bridges to visit a Croatian girl he’d known before the division. On the way back he was shot in the back of the head by the Croat checkpoint guards and his car slowed to a halt half way across the bridge as he died (p.33). To understand the Yugoslav catastrophe you have to get inside the minds of the soldiers who did that.

While UN peacekeepers eventually moved in to supervise the fragile peace, the European Union considered how to repair the devastated infrastructure all across the former Yugoslav states. Ignatieff meets the man charged with rebuilding the famous Mostar bridge, a French architect named Gille Pequeux. Ignatieff spends time with him, learning how the Frenchman is doggedly studying whatever architects plans still survive, analysing the ancient techniques the Ottomans used to cut the stone and carve runnels along the inward-facing sides which were then filled with molten lead to tie them together, in every way trying to make the reconstruction as authentic as possible.

Ignatieff drolly points out that the president of Turkey offered to fund the rebuilding the bridge as a symbol of Turkey’s long-term presence/contribution/imperial occupation of this part of Europe. The EU politely turned down the offer and insisted it was done by one of their own. So it is drily ironic that the much-lauded rebirth of this ‘symbol of multiculturalism’ entailed a diplomatic rebuff of an actual gesture of multiculturalism (p.36).

But rebuilding bridges and houses and hospitals and mosques is easy. Reconciling the people who live and work in them is much harder. Ignatieff is blunt. The EU and America have spent over $6 billion ‘reconstructing’ Bosnia but it is still ruled by the crooks who rose to power during the wars and a big part of the aid money, like aid money anywhere, is routinely creamed off by corrupt leaders and administrators.

Leaders of the rival communities never meet and rarely talk. They only get together for the photo opportunities required to make a show of unity for the press and EU officials to ensure the all-important foreign aid cash keeps flowing.

For our part, the West is disillusioned. Real reconciliation has not taken place. Corruption is endemic. Some of the refugees have returned to their homes but for many ethnic cleansing achieved its goals. Many of the locals still hate each other.

And so Ignatieff points out that rebuilding the bridge is as important for the morale of the interventionist West as for the locals. We need it to prop up our delusions that opposite sides in a civil war can be reconciled. That our costly interventions are worthwhile.

This lovely essay rises to a poetic peroration:

The Western need for noble victims and happy endings suggests that we are more interested in ourselves than we are in the places, like Bosnia, that we take up as causes. This may be the imperial kernel at the heart of the humanitarian enterprise. For what is empire but the desire to imprint our values, civilisation and achievements on the souls, bodies and institutions of another people? Imperialism is a narcissistic enterprise, and narcissism is doomed to disillusion. Whatever other people want to be, they do not want to be forced to be us. It is an imperial mistake to suppose that we can change their hearts and minds. It is their memory, their trauma, not ours, and our intervention is not therapy. We can help them to rebuild the bridge. Whether they actually use it to heal their city is up to them. (p.43)

Beautiful rhythm to it, isn’t there? Lovely cadences. The flow of the prose beautifully embodies the flow of the thought which is both clear and logical but also emotive and compelling. Ignatieff writes like this everywhere: he is lucid, logical, but also stylish and evocative. He’s the complete package.

Chapter 2. The Humanitarian as Imperialist

Opens in 2000 with Ignatieff attending a press photo shoot given by UN representative in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, and a Spanish general, who have persuaded two local Kosovar politicians, one of them a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army nicknamed ‘the snake’, to accompany him to the site of an atrocity. In the night someone laid a landmine. This morning a van driving between two Serb villages ran over it, it detonated, killing two outright and blowing the legs off the one survivor. The two Kosovar politicians say the required words, about the need to change hearts and minds. Koucher delivers his patter. The photographers snap, the new crews record, then it is over and everyone jumps into their cars and speeds off.

Ignatieff accompanies them to a Serbian monastery. Father Sava, the head of the monastery has been chosen as a ‘moderate’ leader of the minority Serbian community left in Kosovo when the war ended in 1999. Attacks on Serbs are continuing on a daily basis. Kouchner and the Spaniard assure Father Sava they are doing everything they can. It doesn’t much matter since the simmering Serb community doesn’t believe either Sava or the UN. Not when members of their families are blown up or shot every day.

The international community is having to rebuild Kosovo from the ground up, rebuilding its entire infrastructure, economy, everything, making it ‘the most ambitious project the UN has ever undertaken’ (p.51).

Once again Ignatieff repeats that the West ‘want’s noble victims and doesn’t know how to cope when the victims turn on their former oppressors.

Bernard Kouchner

All this is by way of introduction to a long profile of Bernard Kouchner. Being Ignatieff, he sees Kouchner not so much as a person but as a walking embodiment of the way the entire doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has changed and evolved over thirty years.

Ignatieff says Kouchner came of age during the heady revolutionary days of Paris 1968. In a change-the-world spirit he volunteered to go serve as a doctor with the Red Cross in Biafra. However, he drastically disagreed with the Red Cross ideology of neutrality, non-intervention and non-reporting, removed his Red Cross armband and was among the founder members of the French organisation Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders. These guys are more prepared to call out aggressors and killers. Ignatieff considers the pros and cons of the two positions, Red Cross’s studied neutrality, Médecins’ engagement.

Ignatieff claims Kouchner also pioneered the involvement of the media in humanitarian aid, realising people need to be shocked out of their complacency by images of horror and starving children on their TVs. He has been involved in various publicity stunts which drew down a world of mockery from liberal commentators but do, generally, publicise his causes.

It is Kouchner, more than anyone else, who created the modern European relation between civic compassion, humanitarian action and the media. (p.61)

Kouchner parted from Médecins when the latter won the Nobel Prize in 1999. This is because Kouchner had moved on from thinking aid organisations should speak out about evil, murder, massacre, human-engineered famine and so on, but had progressed to a more assertive position – that humanitarian organisations needed to get involved in political attempts to combat evil.

Aid organisations talk about ‘civil society’ and the ‘humanitarian space’ but Ignatieff says Kouchner thought this was an illusion. Aid agencies are supported and enabled by nation states. More than that, some crises aren’t humanitarian crises at all, they are crimes. Thus Saddam Hussein attacking his Kurdish population, trying to exterminate it and driving it up into the mountains to starve to death wasn’t a ‘humanitarian crisis’, it was a crime against humanity. Situations like this don’t call for the discreet, neutral aid providing of the Red Cross; they must be opposed by force.

This led him to become deeply involved in French and then UN politics. In 1988 he became Secrétaire d’état for Humanitarian Action in 1988 in the Michel Rocard cabinet, then Minister of Health during Mitterrand’s presidency. He served in the European Parliament 1994 to 1997, chairing the Committee on Development and Cooperation. He became French Minister of Health 1997 to 1999 Lionel Jospin’s government, and then served as Minister of Health for a third time, 2001 to 2002.

Ignatieff says Kouchner’s positions, then, aren’t interesting conversation pieces, but have influenced French government action. Thus his position influenced the French decision to back the UN resolution to send a peace-keeping force into Bosnia, part of which was meant to protect Sarajevo and Srebrenica. This failed miserably, with the Serbs bombing Sarajevo for years, and rounding up and exterminating 8,000 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica under the noses of the 300-strong UN force.

The logic of this sequence of events is that only force can work against evil aggressors, and it was this thinking which finally led the Americans to intervene when they ordered air strikes against Serbian positions in defence of a Croat advance; and then the sustained bombing of Belgrade from March to June 1999 to persuade the government of Slobodan Milošević to stop the massacring of Albanian Kosovars.

So the appointment of Kouchner as UN Representative to Kosovo in 1999 was full of historical ironies and meanings. This was the man who had led humanitarian intervention away from the studied neutrality of the 1960s, through active calling-out towards ever-growing aggressive intervention against the bad guys. So it is the evolution of Kouchner’s theoretical positions which interests Ignatieff.

In this chapter he reiterates what are, by now, becoming familiar points. One is that the intervention is ‘imperial’ in a number of ways. First and foremost, imperialism means powerful states compelling populations in weaker ones to behave how the powerful ones want them to. But all this talk about reconciliation is far from disinterested altruism: the European nations want to sort out the Balkan issue and impose peace and reconciliation so as to remove a source of political instability which could (in an admittedly remote scenario) draw in either Russia or Turkey. More immediately, to cut off the influx of the Balkans’ most successful exports, which he drily lists as organised crime, drugs and sex slaves (p.60).

Second, as in his essay about Bosnia and Afghanistan and in The Warrior’s Honour, is that Ignatieff is very, very sceptical about the chances of anything like genuine reconciliation. The same ethnic groups are now at daggers’ drawn and will do everything they can to harm or kill members of the opposing groups. He claims that Kouchner was taken aback by the ferocity of the tribal hatred he encountered when he first arrived (p.63), and depicts Kouchner, when he’s not performing for the cameras, as an exhausted and disillusioned man.

As in the essay on Mostar, he asks why the victims should be obliged to conform to the Western stereotype of the noble-minded victim? In reality, the second they had the chance, the ‘victims’ have turned the tables and are carrying out a campaign of revenge killings and terrorist atrocities against the Serbs still stuck in north Kosovo who haven’t been able to flee to the safety of Serbia.

Ignatieff sees Kouchner as an imperial viceroy who has been parachuted in to try and rebuild the country and prepare it for ‘autonomy’. He calls it a ‘protectorate’ with a pretence of local autonomy but where rule actually stops with the imperial viceroy, as in the Raj, as in the British and French mandates in the Middle East between the wars. If that was ‘imperialism’, surely this is, too.

Once again, Ignatieff makes the point that maybe what Kosovo needs is not a moderately independent-minded Kouchner, but an utterly independent-minded General MacArthur, who was given a free hand to rule Japan as he saw fit for six years. Maybe what the Balkans need is not less imperialism, but a more naked, out and out, assertive imperialism. Do this, or else.

(In the event Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on 17 February 2008. As of 4 September 2020, 112 UN states recognised its independence, with the notable exceptions of Russia and China.)

Chapter 3. Nation-building Lite

Max Weber said a state is an institution which exerts a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence over a given territory. Generally, this monopoly is channeled via the institutions of a professional police service and an army. In a Western nation the police are subject to an elected politician and their work feeds into an independent judiciary, while the army is trained and led by professionals.

In a failed state, weapons are everywhere and the use of violence is widely dispersed. Usually, after a period of anarchy, warlords emerge who control the application of violence, at least in their territories, but often only up to a point, and sometimes cannot control permanent low-level street violence.

The essence of nation-building is to get weapons out of circulation – out of the hands of warlords, paramilitaries, criminal gangs and punks on the street – and restore that monopoly of violence which is one definition of a functioning state; and in so doing to create a space in which non-violent politics, negotiation, discussion and compromise, can be encouraged. It may still be a violent and corrupt state but it is, at least, a starting point.

Ignatieff points out in The Warrior’s Honour that, in quite a few failed states round the world, this is now harder to do than ever before, because modern weapons are so cheap and easily available. Some societies have become soaked in guns and it’s hard to see a way back to unarmed civility.

Ignatieff gives specifics about the history of Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, the West’s backing of the mujahideen who, once the Soviets left and the West walked away, degenerated into a civil war of regional warlords. But his interest, as always, is in the principles and theory behind it.

He repeats one of his central ideas which is that nation-building takes a long, long time, and gives a striking example. America’s own nation-building, starting with the Reconstruction after the civil war, arguably took an entire century, up until the civil rights legislation of 1964 finally abolished discrimination against Afro-Americans (p.85).

Reconstruction in Germany and Japan took about a decade, but in both the nation-builders were starting in states with well-defined borders, established (albeit corrupted) institutions, and ethnic homogeneity. The populations of both countries wanted to be reconstructed.

He makes the point that one of the secrets of success for an empire is the illusion of permanence, of longevity. As soon as you announce you’re leaving, all the vested interests rise up and jockey for power. This is vividly demonstrated by the absolute chaos into which Congo plunged at independence, as provinces seceded and new parties jockeyed for power using extra-political means i.e. guns and coups.

Ignatieff says the Americans have a poor track record on this issue, and a reputation for walking away from chaotic states when it suits them. This means local warlords realise they just have to mind their manners and bide their time. What Ignatieff didn’t know in 2002 is that the Americans would stay for an epic 20 years but, the same rule of permanence applies: as soon as Joe Biden announced they were leaving, people all across the country realised the Taliban would swarm back into power and began making arrangements accordingly, i.e. Afghan police, army and local governors defecting to them within days, so that the entire Afghan security apparatus melted away and the Taliban were in Kabul within a week.

Not so easy, running an empire, is it? Maybe the thousands of American academics who loftily criticise Britain’s chaotic withdrawal from Palestine or India will reflect on the cracking job their boys did in Afghanistan.

Ignatieff makes another snappy point: how can American Republican administrations, who are fanatically opposed to Big Government, find themselves spending tens of billions of dollars creating huge administrations in foreign countries? Easy. They get the Europeans to do it. The Americans are good at fighting (Ignatieff says that, in a sense, America is the last warlike nation in the West) so they handle the bombs and drones and special forces. The Europeans then move in with the peacekeeping police forces and the droves of humanitarian aid agencies, building schools, hospitals etc. Yin and yang.

Chapter 4. Conclusion: Empire and its Nemesis

He describes modern Western nation-building as ‘imperial’ because:

  • its essential purpose is to create stability in border zones essential to the security of the great powers
  • the entire project rests on the superior armed might of the West
  •  no matter how much ‘autonomy’ is given to local rulers, real power rests in Washington

In addition, he points out how all empires have to ration their interventions. It is a sage point, which sheds light on the British Empire. You have limited resources: which of the world’s endless trouble spots can you afford to address? Ignatieff points out the basic hypocrisy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ which is that it is only carried out in places which are convenient or important to the West. The West is never going to intervene in Chechnya or Crimea or Xinjiang because they are the preserves of other empires.

The new imperialism is not only lite it is impatient. The British gave themselves generations to prepare the populations of India for independence. The UN gives places like Kosovo or Afghanistan 3 years before they have to hold their first elections. Hurry up! This is costing us money!

No imperialists have ever been so impatient for quicker results. (p.115)

Why? The short attention span of the modern media, always hurrying on to the next story. (It took, by my calculation, about ten days from the American departure from Afghanistan being the biggest story in the whole world to being completely ignored and forgotten about.) And the election cycle in democracies. Whatever plans you put in place now, at the next election in a few years’ time the leader of the opposition party will be promising to bring our boys home and save everyone a shedload of money.

This conclusion takes its title from a reflection on the enduring force of nationalism. In the end the European empires were defeated by the indomitable force of the colonies’ nationalist movements. This was the lesson the Americans should have learned from Vietnam. It wasn’t their weapons which won the Viet Cong victory, it was their nationalist vehemence. Nationalism always trumps empire.

Nationalism will always prove to be the nemesis of any imperial nation-building project. (p.117)

Ignatieff didn’t know this when he wrote these lines, but they apply to the American invasion of Iraq. They overthrew a dictator and promised to bring peace and plenty, so were utterly unprepared for the violence of the forces that attacked them from all sides.

Thoughts

1. So Ignatieff’s message is that if liberal humanitarians really want to intervene to do good, they should really intervene: go in hard, defeat the bad guys, disarm them, force parties to the negotiating table, and run things themselves, setting up strong national institutions and teaching squabbling factions what democracy looks like in practice. And they have to do this for years, decades maybe, until the institutions and mindsets of civic society have been thoroughly inculcated. And only then leave. In other words, imperialism. Not the kind of imperialism which exploits the native populations and rips off their raw materials. An altruistic imperialism, a humanitarian imperialism. But imperialism all the same.

2. When Ignatieff devotes a chapter of The Warrior’s Honour to the growing sense of weariness and disillusion with humanitarian intervention, I suspected he was talking about himself. This book shows a further deterioration in his attitude; I mean, he has become markedly more cynical

Across the board hopes have been crushed, ideals have been compromised, ambitions have been stymied. Much of this may reflect the appalling history of the 1990s, but I also think some of it may be a projection of Ignatieff’s own growing disillusion.

You feel this downward trajectory when he says that Bernard Kouchner arrived in Kosovo in July ‘talking about European values, tolerance and multiculturalism’ but by Christmas this had been revised down to hopes for ‘coexistence’ (p.63). Kouchner simply hadn’t anticipated the hatred and the intransigence which he found in Kosovo. So many aid workers and proponents of humanitarian intervention don’t. In Blood and Belonging Ignatieff refers fairly respectfully to ‘the international community’. Eight years later he refers to it as:

what is laughingly referred to as the ‘international community’. (p.97)

He is particularly disillusioned with the international aid industry, which he sees as almost a scam, a locust swarm of very well-paid white Western graduates, who fly in, can’t speak the language, pay over the odds for everything thus pricing the locals out of accommodation and food, stay hunkered down in their armoured enclaves, drive everywhere in arrogant white 4 by 4s, and cook up huge projects without consulting any of the locals. All the Afghans he talks to complain to Ignatieff about the NGOs’ arrogance and condescension. It is the colonialist attitude with email and shades. In this book he has taken to referring to the aid organisation community dismissively as the ‘internationals’.

In this book Ignatieff is as clever and incisive and thought-provoking as ever. But sometimes he sounds really tired.


Credit

Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan by Michael Ignatieff was published by Vintage in 2003. All references are to the 2003 Vintage paperback edition.

New world disorder reviews

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Summary

This is a very mixed bag of a book. The first quarter or so is a thrilling global overview of the main trends and developments in industrial capitalism during the period 1875 to 1914, containing a vast array of fascinating and often thrilling facts and figures. But then it mutates into a series of long, turgid, repetitive, portentous, banal and ultimately uninformative chapters about social change, the arts, sciences, social sciences and so on, which are dreadful.

And underlying it all is Hobsbawm’s unconcealed contempt for the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’ and their ‘bourgeois society’, terms he uses so freely and with so little precision that they eventually degenerate into just being terms of abuse.

And in his goal of insulting the 19th century ‘bourgeoisie’ as much as possible, Hobsbawm glosses over a huge range of crucial differences – between nations and regions, between political and cultural and religious traditions, between parties and politicians, between classes and even periods, yoking a fact from 1880 to one from 1900, cherry-picking from a vast range of information in order to make his sweeping Marxist generalisations and support the tendentious argument that ‘bourgeois society’ was fated to collapse because of its numerous ‘contradictions’.

But when you really look hard at the ‘contradictions’ he’s talking about they become a lot less persuasive than he wants them to be, and his insistence that ‘bourgeois society’ was doomed to collapse in a welter of war and revolution comes to seem like the partisan, biased reporting of a man who is selective in his facts and slippery in his interpretations.

Eventually you feel like you are drowning in a sea of spiteful and tendentious generalisations. I would recommend literally any other book on the period as a better guide, for example:

It is symptomatic of Hobsbawm’s ignoring specificity, detail and precision in preference for sweeping generalisations about his hated ‘bourgeois society’, that in this book supposedly ‘about’ imperialism, he mentions the leading imperialist politician in the world’s leading imperialist nation, Joseph Chamberlain, precisely once, and the leading British cultural propagandist of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, also only once. These feel like glaring omissions.

When I read this book as a student I was thrilled by its huge perspectives and confident generalisations and breezily Marxist approach. It was only decades later, when I read detailed books about the scramble for Africa, or late-imperial China, or really engaged with Kipling’s works, that I realised how little I actually understood about this period and how much I had been seriously misled by Hobsbawm’s fine-sounding but, in the end, inadequate, superficial and tendentiously misleading account.

Introduction

The Age of Empire is the third and final volume in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books covering what he termed ‘the long nineteenth century’, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1798 to the start of the Great War in 1914. This third instalment covers the final 40 years, from 1875 to 1914.

In the previous book, The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm had amply demonstrated that he regards the third quarter of the nineteenth century as marking the triumph of the liberal ‘bourgeoisie’, of the ‘capitalist’ middle classes, in industry and technology and finance and politics and the arts.

Having seen off the attempt to overthrow existing regimes across continental Europe in the failed revolutions of 1848, the continent’s ruling classes experienced from 1850 onwards, a period of spectacular economic, technological, business and trade growth which continued on into the 1860s. This boom period was overseen by laissez-faire liberal governments in most countries and reflected in the widespread, optimistic belief that the steady stream of scientific, technological and industrial innovations would produce an endless progress upwards towards peace and prosperity. It was 25 years of what Hobsbawm insists on calling ‘liberal bourgeois triumph’.

It led to the confident conquest of the globe by the capitalist economy, carried by its characteristic class, the bourgeoisie, and under the banner of its characteristic intellectual expression, the ideology of liberalism. (p.9)

At the end of The Age of Capital he gave a short preview of what was coming up in the next era, and it is a major change in tone and subject. Whereas the pace of scientific and technological innovation accelerated, economically, politically and culturally the period which began around 1875 felt like a very different period, witnessing the collapse of much of the mid-century optimism.

Main features of the period

The Long Depression

The period witnessed a long depression, particularly in agriculture, which lasted from 1873 to 1896. A glut of agricultural produce led to a collapse in prices, rural poverty and loss of revenue for the landowning aristocracies. Cheaper food made life better for all those who lived in cities, so the overall impact was very mixed. Commentators at the time didn’t understand what had led to an apparent stalling in expansion and profits and historians have debated its precise causes ever since.

Protectionism

The Long Depression was the main trigger for many western governments to move rapidly from the mid-century free trade model associated with Liberalism towards protectionism, the imposition of protective tariffs on imports etc, especially by America.

New industries

The textile base of the first industrial revolution continued to be important (witness Britain’s huge exports of cotton to its captive markets in India) but the main industrial economies entered a new era driven by new sources of power (electricity and oil, turbines and the internal combustion engine), exploiting new, science-based materials (steel [which became a general index for industrialisation and modernisation, p.35], alloys, non-ferrous metals), accompanied by numerous discoveries in organic chemistry (for example, new dyes and ways of colouring which affected everything from army uniforms to high art).

Monopoly-capitalism

The depression and the consumer explosion led to small and medium-sized companies being replaced by large industrial corporations, cartels, trusts, monopolies (p.44).

New managerial class

The age of small factories run by their founders and family was eclipsed by the creation of huge industrial complexes themselves gathered into regions linked by communications and transport. Hobsbawm mentions the vast industrial conurbation taking shape in the Ruhr region of Germany or the growth of the steel industry around Pittsburgh in America. The point is that these operations became far too large for one man and his son to run; they required managers experienced at managing industrial operations at scale, and so this gave rise to a new class of high level managers and executives. And to the beginnings of management ‘theory’, epitomised by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (born 1865 in Pennsylvania) which introduced concepts like, to quote Wikipedia:

analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation.

Population growth

Europe’s population rose from 290 million in 1870 to 435 million in 1910, America’s from 38.5 million to 92 million. (All told, America’s population multiplied over five times from 30 million in 1800 to 160 million by 1900.)

Consumer capitalism

This huge population explosion led to a rapid expansion of domestic consumer markets (p.53). There was still much widespread poverty in the cities, but there was also an ever-growing middle and lower-middle-class keen to assert its status through its possessions. This led to an fast-expanding market for cheap products, often produced by the new techniques of mass production, epitomised by the radical industrial organising of Henry Ford who launched his Model T automobile in 1907.

Department stores and chain stores

Another symbol of this explosion of consumer culture was the arrival of the department store and the chain store in the UK (p.29). For example, Thomas Lipton opened his first small grocery shop in Glasgow in 1871 and by 1899 had over 500 branches, selling the characteristic late-Victorian product, tea, imported from Ceylon (p.53; British tea consumption p.64).

Or take Whiteleys, which began as a fancy goods shop opened in 1863 at 31 Westbourne Grove by William Whiteley, employing two girls to serve and a boy to run errands. By 1867 it had expanded to a row of shops containing 17 separate departments. Whiteley continued to diversify into food and estate agency, building and decorating and by 1890 employed over 6,000 staff. Whiteleys awed contemporaries by its scale and regimentation: most of the staff lived in company-owned male and female dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7 am to 11 pm, six days a week.

Mass advertising

The arrival of a mass consumer market for many goods and services led to an explosion in the new sector of advertising. Many writers and diarists of the time lament the explosion of ads in newspapers, magazines and, most egregious of all, on the new billboards and hoardings which started going up around cities.

The poster

Hoardings required posters. The modern poster was brought to a first pitch of perfection during what critics consider ‘the golden age of the poster’ in the 1890s (p.223) (something I learned a lot about at the current exhibition of the poster art of John Hassell at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner).

Hire purchase and modern finance

New ways for the financially squeezed lower middle classes to pay for all this were invented, notably hire-purchase or instalment payments (p.49).

New popular technologies

Entirely new technologies were invented during the 1880s and 1890s, the most notable being the internal combustion engine and the car, the bicycle, cinema, telephone, wireless and light bulb (pages 19 and 28 and 53).

Competition for resources

New discoveries in industrial chemistry and processes required more recherché raw materials – oil, rubber, rare metals such as manganese, tin and nickel (p.63). The booming consumer market also developed a taste for more exotic foodstuffs, specifically fruits, bananas, cocoa. (Apparently it was only during the 1880s that the banana became widely available and popular in the West.) Where was all this stuff found? In the non-European world.

Imperialism

Growing need for all these resources and crops led to increasing competition to seize territories which contained them. Hence the 1880s and 1890s are generally seen as the high point of Western imperialism, leading up to the so-called Scramble for Africa in the 1880s.

(Interestingly, Hobsbawm notes that the word ‘imperialism’, used in its modern sense, occurs nowhere in Karl Marx’s writings, and only became widely used in the 1890s, many commentators remarking [and complaining] about its sudden ubiquity, p.60.)

Globalisation

During the 1860s and 70s the world became for the first time fully ‘globalised’, via the power of trade and commerce, but also the physical ties of the Railway and the Telegraph (p.13).

The major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world. (p.62)

During the 1880s and 1890s this process was intensified due to the growth of direct competition between the powers for colonies and their raw materials. Until the 1870s Britain ruled the waves. During this decade international competition for territories to exploit for their raw resources and markets became more intense (p.51). Imperialism.

A world divided

The final mapping of the world, its naming and definitions, led inevitably to the division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ parts, into ‘the advanced and the backward’.

For contemporaries, the industrialised West had a duty to bring the benefits of civilisation and Christianity to the poor benighted peoples who lived in all the ‘undeveloped’ regions. Hobsbawm, with the benefit of hindsight, says that the representatives of the developed part almost always came as ‘conquerors’ to the undeveloped part whose populations thus became, in Hobsbawm’s phrase, ‘victims’ of international capitalism.

On this Marxist reading, the imperial conquerors always distorted local markets to suit themselves, reducing many populations to plantation labour reorganised to produce the raw materials the West required, and eagerly helped by the tiny minorities in each undeveloped country which were able to exploit the process and rise to the top as, generally, repressive local rulers (pages 31, 56, 59).

In the second half of the twentieth century, many nations which had finally thrown off the shackles of colonialism found themselves still ruled by the descendants of these collaborationist elites, who modelled themselves on their former western rulers and still ran their countries for the benefit of themselves and their foreign sponsors. Further, truly nationalist revolutions were required, of which the most significant, in my lifetime, was probably the overthrow of the American-backed Shah of Iran by Islamic revolutionaries in 1978.

New working class militancy

Working class militancy went into abeyance in the decades 1850 to 1875, politically defeated in 1848 and then made irrelevant by a general raising of living standards in the mid-century boom years, much to Marx and Engels’ disappointment.

But in the 1880s it came back with a vengeance. Across the developed world a new generation of educated workers led a resurgence in working class politics, fomented industrial unrest, and a significant increase in strikes. There was much optimistic theorising about the potential of a complete or ‘general’ strike to bring the entire system to a halt, preliminary to ushering in the joyful socialist paradise.

New socialist political parties, some established in the 1860s or 1870s, now found themselves accumulating mass membership and becoming real powers in the land, most notably the left-wing German Social Democratic Party, which was the biggest party in the Reichstag by 1912 (chapter 5 ‘Workers of the World’).

Incorporation of working class demands and parties into politics

The capitalist class and ‘its’ governments found themselves forced to accede to working class demands, intervening in industries to regulate pay and conditions, and to sketch out welfare state policies such as pensions and unemployment benefit.

Again, Germany led the way, with its Chancellor, Bismarck, implementing a surprisingly liberal series of laws designed to support workers, including a Health Insurance Bill (1883), an Accident Insurance Bill (1884), an Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill (1889) – although, as everyone knew, he did this chiefly to steal the thunder from the German socialist parties.

Whatever the motives, the increasing intervention by governments across Europe into the working hours, unemployment and pension arrangements of their working classes were all a world away from the laissez-faire policies of the 1850s and 60s. Classical liberalism thought the forces of the market should be left entirely to themselves and would ineluctably resolve all social problems. By the 1880s it was clear to everyone that this was not the case and had instead produced widespread immiseration and poverty which states needed to address, if only to ensure social stability, and to neutralise the growing threat from workers’ parties.

Populism and blood and soil nationalism

But the rise of newly class-conscious workers’ parties, often with explicit agendas to overthrow the existing ‘bourgeois’ arrangements of society, and often with an internationalist worldview, triggered an equal and opposite reaction: the birth of demagogic, anti-liberal and anti-socialist, populist parties.

These harnessed the tremendous late-century spread of a new kind of aggressive nationalism which emphasised blood and soil and national language and defined itself by excluding ‘outsiders. (Chapter 6 ‘Waving Flags: Nations and Nationalism’).

Some of these were harmless enough, like Cymru Fydd, founded in Wales in 1886. Some would lead to armed resistance, like the Basque National Party founded 1886. Some became embroiled in wider liberation struggles, such as the Irish Gaelic League founded 1893. When Theodor Herzl founded Zionism with a series of articles about a Jewish homeland in 1896 he can little have dreamed what a seismic affect his movement would have in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the point is that, from the time of the French Revolution through to the 1848 revolutions, nationalism had been associated with the political left, from La Patrie of the Jacobins through the ‘springtime of the peoples’ of the 1848 revolutionaries.

Somehow, during the 1870s and 80s, a new type of patriotism, more nationalistic and more aggressive to outsiders and entirely associated with the political Right, spread all across Europe.

Its most baleful legacy was the crystallisation of centuries-old European antisemitism into a new and more vicious form. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906, shocked liberals across Europe precisely because the way it split France down the middle revealed the ongoing presence of a stupid prejudice which bien-pensant liberals thought had been consigned to the Middle Ages, eclipsed during the Enlightenment, long buried.

Instead, here it was, back with a vengeance. Herzl wrote his Zionist articles partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair and to the advent of new right-wing parties such as Action Francaise, set up in 1898 in response to the issues of identity and nationhood thrown up by the affair. (In a way, maybe the Dreyfus Affair was comparable to the election of Donald Trump, which dismayed liberals right around the world by revealing the racist, know-nothing bigotry at the heart of what many people fondly and naively like to think of as a ‘progressive’ nation.)

But it wasn’t just the Jews who were affected. All sorts of minorities in countries and regions all across Europe found themselves victimised, their languages and dialects and cultural traditions under pressure or banned by (often newly founded) states keen to create their own versions of this new, late-century, blood and soil nationalism.

The National Question

In fact this late-nineteenth century, super-charged nationalism was such a powerful force that socialist parties all across Europe had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that it caught the imagination of many more members of the working classes than the socialism which the left-wing parties thought ought to be appealing to them.

Hobsbawm’s heroes Lenin and ‘the young Stalin’ (Stalin – yes, definitely a man to admire and emulate, Eric) were much concerned with the issue. In fact Stalin was asked by Lenin in 1913 to write a pamphlet clarifying the Bolsheviks’ position on the subject, Marxism and the National Question. Lenin’s concern reflected the fact that all across Europe the effort to unify the working class into a revolutionary whole was jeopardised by the way the masses were much more easily rallied in the name of nationalistic ambitions than the comprehensive and radical communist overthrow of society which the socialists dreamed of.

In the few years before Stalin wrote, the Social Democratic Party of Austria had disintegrated into autonomous German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Slovene groupings, exemplifying the way what ought to be working class, socialist solidarity was increasingly undermined by the new nationalism.

Racism

Related to all these topics was widespread racism or, as Hobsbawm puts it:

  • Racism, whose central role in the nineteenth century cannot be overemphasised. (p.252)

This is the kind of sweeping generalisation which is both useful but questionable, at the same time. Presumably Hobsbawm means that racism was one of the dominant ideologies of the period, but where, exactly? In China? Paraguay? Samoa?

Obviously he means that racist beliefs grew increasingly dominant through all strands of ‘bourgeois’ Western ideology as the century progressed, but even this milder formulation is questionable. In Britain the Liberals consistently opposed imperialism. Many Christian denominations in all nations very powerfully opposed racism. For example, it was the incredibly dedicated work of the Quakers which underpinned Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.The missionaries who played such a vital role in funding expeditions into Africa did so to abolish the slave trade there and because they thought Africans were children of God, like us.

A key point of the Dreyfus Affair was not that it was a storming victory for antisemites but the reverse: it proved that a very large part of the French political and commenting classes, as well as the wider population, supported Dreyfus and condemned antisemitism.

It is one thing to make sweeping generalisations about the racism which underpinned and long outlasted the slave system in the American South, which Hobsbawm doesn’t hesitate to do. But surely, in the name of accuracy and real historical understanding, you have to point out the equal and opposite force of anti-racism among the well organised, well-funded and widely popular anti-slavery organisations, newspapers and politicians in the North.

I can see what Hobsbawm’s driving at: as the nineteenth century progressed two types of racism emerged ever more powerfully:

1. In Europe, accompanying the growth of late-century nationalism went an increasingly bitter and toxic animosity against, and contempt for, people identified as ‘outsiders’ to the key tenets nationalists included in their ideology (that members of the nation must speak the same language, practice the same religion, look the same etc), most obviously the Jews, but plenty of other ‘minorities’, especially in central and eastern Europe, suffered miserably. And the Armenians in Turkey, right at the end of Hobsbawm’s period.

2. In European colonies, the belief in the intrinsic racial superiority of white Europeans became increasingly widespread and was bolstered in the later period by the spread of various bastardised forms of Darwinism. (I’ve read in numerous accounts that the Indian Revolt of 1857 marked a watershed in British attitudes, with the new men put in charge maintaining a greater distance from their subjects than previously and how, over time, they came to rationalise this into an ideology of racial superiority.)

I don’t for a minute deny any of this. I’m just pointing out that Hobsbawm’s formulation is long on rousing rhetoric and short on any of the specifics about how racist ideology arose, was defined and played out in actual policies of particular western nations, in specific times and places – the kind of details which would be useful, which would aid our understanding.

And I couldn’t help reflecting that if he thinks racism was central to the 19th century, then what about the twentieth century? Surely the twentieth century eclipses the nineteenth on the scale of its racist ideologies and the terrible massacres it prompted, from the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, the Nazi Ostplan to wipe out all the Slavs in Europe, the Japanese massacres in China, the anti-black racism which dominated much of American life, the Rwandan genocide, and so on.

Hobsbawm confidently writes about ‘the universal racism of the bourgeois world’ (p.289) but the claim, although containing lots of truth a) like lots of his other sweeping generalisations, tends to break down on closer investigation and b) elides the way that there were a lot of other things going on as well, just as there were in the twentieth century.

The New Woman

In 1894 Irish writer Sarah Grand used the term ‘new woman’ in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking radical change and, in response, the English writer Ouida (Maria Louisa Rame) used the term as the title of a follow-up article (Wikipedia).

Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to the rise of women during the period 1875 to 1914. He makes a number of points:

Feminism

The number of feminists and suffragettes was always tiny, not least because they stood for issues which only interested middle-class women, then as now. The majority of British women were poor to very poor indeed, and most simply wanted better working and living conditions and pay. It was mostly upper-middle-class women who wanted the right to vote and access to the professions and universities like their fathers and brothers.

The more visible aspects of women’s emancipation were still largely confined to women of the middle class… In countries like Britain, where suffragism became a significant phenomenon, it measured the public strength of organised feminism, but in doing so it also revealed its major limitation, an appeal primarily confined to the middle class. (p.201)

Upper class feminism

It is indicative of the essentially upper-class nature of suffragism and feminism that the first woman to be elected to the UK House of Commons was Constance Georgine Gore-Booth, daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth.

Nancy Astor

In fact, as an Irish Republican, Constance refused to attend Westminster, with the result that the first woman MP to actually sit in the House of Commons, was the American millionairess, Nancy Astor, who took her seat after winning a by-election for the Conservative Party in 1919. Formally titled Viscountess Astor, she lived with her American husband, Waldorf Astor, in a grand London house, No. 4 St. James’s Square, or spent time at the vast Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire which Waldorf’s father bought the couple as a wedding present. Hardly the stuff of social revolutions, is it? The exact opposite, in fact. Reinforcing wealth and privilege.

Rentier feminism

In the same way, a number of the most eminent women of the day lived off inherited money and allowances. They were rentiers, trustafarians aka parasites. When Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman writer needed ‘a room of her own’ what she actually meant was an income of about £500 a year, ideally provided by ‘the family’ i.e. Daddy. The long-running partnership of the founders of the left-wing Fabian Society, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, was based on the £1,000 a year settled on her by her father at her marriage i.e. derived from the labour of others, mostly working class men (p.185).

New secretarial jobs for women

Alongside the rise of a new managerial class, mentioned above, the 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of new secretarial and administrative roles, what Hobsbawm neatly calls ‘a tribute to the typewriter’ (p.201). In 1881 central and local government in Britain employed 7,000 women; by 1911 that number was 76,000. Many women went into these kinds of secretarial jobs, and also filled the jobs created by the spread of the new department and chain stores. So these years saw a broad social change as many middle-class and lower middle-class single women and wives were able to secure reasonable white collar jobs in ever-increasing numbers (p.200).

Women and education

Education began to be offered to the masses across Europe during the 1870s and 80s, with Britain’s patchy 1870 Education Act followed by an act making junior school education compulsory in 1890. Obviously this created a huge new demand for schoolteachers and this, also, was to become a profession which women dominated, a situation which continues to this day. (In the UK in 2019, 98% of all early years teachers are women, 86% of nursery and primary teachers are women, 65% of secondary teachers are women. Overall, 75.8% of all grades of school teacher in the UK are female).

Secretarial and admin, shop staff, and schoolteachers – the pattern of women dominating in these areas was set in the 1880s and 1890s and continues to this day (p.201).

Women and religion

Hobsbawm makes one last point about women during this period which is that many, many more women were actively involved in the Christian church than in feminist or left-wing politics: women were nuns, officiants in churches, and supporters of Christian parties.

Statistically the women who opted for the defence of their sex through piety enormously outnumbered those who opted for liberation. (p.210)

I was surprised to learn that many women in France were actively against the vote being given to women, because they already had a great deal of ‘soft’ social and cultural power under the existing system, and actively didn’t want to get drawn into the worlds of squabbling men, politics and the professions.

Even within the bourgeois liberal society, middle class and petty-bourgeois French women, far from foolish and not often given to gentle passivity, did not bother to support the cause of women’s suffrage in large numbers. (p.209)

Feminism, then as now, claimed to speak for all women, a claim which is very misleading. Many women were not feminists, and many women were actively anti-feminist in the sense that they devoutly believed in Christian, and specifically Catholic, values, which allotted women clear duties and responsibilities as wives and mothers in the home, but also gave them cultural capital, privileges and social power.

These anti-feminists were far from stupid. They realised that a shift to more secular or socialist models would actually deprive them of much of this soft power. Or they just opposed secular, socialist values. Just as more than 50% of white American women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and did so again in 2020.

Sport

Hobsbawm mentions sport throughout the book. I knew that a lot of sports were given formal rules and their governing bodies founded during this era – the Football League founded in 1888, Rugby Football Union founded 1871, Lawn Tennis Association founded 1888. I knew that tennis and golf in particular quickly became associated with the comfortably off middle classes, as they still are to this day.

But I hadn’t realised that these sports were so very liberating for women. Hobsbawm includes posters of women playing golf and tennis and explains that clubs for these sports became acceptable meeting places for young women whose families could be confident they would be meeting ‘the right sort’ of middle class ‘people like them’. As to this day. The spread of these middle class sports significantly opened up the number of spaces where women had freedom and autonomy.

The bicycle

Another new device which was an important vehicle for women’s freedom was the bicycle, which spread very quickly after its initial development in the 1880s, creating bicycle clubs and competitions and magazines and shops across the industrialised world, particularly liberating for many middle class women whom it allowed to travel independently for the first time.

Victorian Women's Cyclewear: The Ingenious Fight Against Conventions - We Love Cycling magazine

The arts and sciences

I haven’t summarised Hobsbawm’s lengthy sections about the arts and literature because, as a literature graduate, I found them boring and obvious and clichéd (Wagner was a great composer but a bad man; the impressionists revolutionised art by painting out of doors etc).

Ditto the chapters about the hard and social sciences, which I found long-winded, boring and dated. In both Age of Capital and this volume, the first hundred pages describing the main technological and industrial developments of the period are by far the most interesting and exciting bits, and the texts go steadily downhill after that.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback edition.

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  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

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  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won the civil war.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, chapter X)

Brief bio

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Harriet Bailey, a slave woman, and an unknown white father, probably in February 1818. He speculated that his father was the plantation master, but he never had any proof.

Fred Bailey, as everyone called him, was about seven years old when his mother died, and soon after that he was given to Lucretia Auld, who sent him to serve her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld in Baltimore and his wife, Sophia, who was the first to teach him to start to read and write, until her husband forbade her.

After seven years of relative good treatment as a domestic slave in Baltimore, Bailey was sent to a plantation to work in the fields and subjected to brutal treatment. He made good comrades among the other male slaves and helped organise a group escape of about 6 slaves in April 1836, but the conspiracy was discovered and Bailey was severely punished.

Two years later, in September 1838, aged 20, he finally managed to escape to the free North. In 1837, Bailey had met and fallen in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore about five years his senior. She encouraged his aspirations to be free, lent him money and helped his escape. The escape was quite elaborate, requiring Bailey to take a train north, then a steam ferry across the Susquehanna River, and then resume the train journey, to arrive at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery stronghold.

To do this he required a sailor’s uniform provided to him by Murray, who also gave him part of her savings to cover his travel costs and he needed to carry identification and protection papers certifying that he was free, which he had obtained from a free black seaman. Full details of the thrilling escape are given in the Wikipedia article.

Three points about this:

  1. Anna’s help was absolutely central to Bailey’s escape.
  2. Bailey gives no details whatsoever of the escape in this book: in this narrative he says that even hints about how he did it would close the escape route for any who wanted to follow him.
  3. It reads like one of the accounts of Allied airman escaping Nazi-occupied France, what with the need for a disguise and false papers. They are two very similar genres.

Bailey moved on from Philadelphia to New York where he was married to Anna Murray then, to be safe, they moved further north, to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Here he was welcomed by a network of  abolitionists who helped freed slaves. He wanted to change his name to establish a new identity and one of these white supporters suggested the name Douglass, the name of a character in Walter Scott’s novel The Lady of the Lake, which the supporter happened to be reading at the time (explained in chapter XI).

After the newly named Frederick Douglass made a speech at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket he was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to lecture about his life as a slave. He was so eloquent that auditors doubted such an articulate man could ever have been a slave and that was the spur for him to write this autobiography, the Narrative, which became an international bestseller.

The publicity the Narrative brought made him made Douglass fear he might be tracked down and recaptured by his previous owner, so he fled to England. Here he became a free man when a group of supporters purchased his liberty for $700. In spring 1847 Douglass returned to America and launched his own newspaper. He published a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855.

Following the outbreak of the civil war in April 1861, Douglass lobbied President Lincoln to allow black men to enlist as soldiers in the Union cause and lobbied for the emancipation of slaves to become a Union war aim and so his joy when Lincoln finally makes the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 is often quoted by historians. After the war he campaigned for the swift passage of the Fifteenth Amendment granting suffrage to freed slaves. It was finally ratified in 1870.

Douglass rose to hold a series of official positions, serving the US government as a Federal Marshall in the District of Columbia, as consul to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. These experiences form the basis for his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881.

Douglass died in 1895 shortly after delivering a speech about women’s rights.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

It’s a short text. In the Oxford University Press edition, it’s 92 pages. But a little like another short book, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, it manages to convey an entire world of suffering and humiliation in a short span.

The text is packed with examples of the wickedness and evil of slavery which appal and disgust the reader. But what really strikes home is the universal perversion of normal human relationships which slavery brings. He never knew his birthday, no-one told him. He was separated from his mother when he was months old; she was sent off to slave from dawn to dusk at another of his master’s holdings. On a handful of occasions, when her day’s work was done, she walked miles to see him and bed down with him for a few hours but she was always gone in the morning. When he was seven he learned, some time after the fact, that she had died.

He explains how frequent it is that a master impregnates one of his female slaves and goes on to raise the child, his own child, as another slave. On the one hand it is ‘cheaper’ than buying new slaves. But on the other, it leads to terrible perversions of human relations. Think about it: a man makes his own child a slave. If he shows any partiality for the child, his white children or wife and even the other slaves will resent it. And he looks on while overseers whip his own child, or watches his half-brothers whip his own child.

The slave narrative genre and its conventions

The notes in the OUP version I read mention the 1839 book, American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. This was an anthology of documents assembled by the American abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké. They bought thousands of old newspapers from libraries and scoured them for all references to slavery, personal accounts, letters, articles and hundreds of adverts, especially for runaway slaves, written by slavers themselves.

When cut and pasted together the book formed a harrowing testimony to the brutality of the slave regime which completely contradicted the lying speeches of southern politicians and commentators.

But from a literary point of view, the important thing about American Slavery As It Is is how influential it was. Harriet Beecher Stowe used it as the direct inspiration for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which itself influenced millions. Charles Dickens’s American Notes quotes whole ads from American Slavery. And  also Frederick Douglass quoted extensively from the book in the many speeches he gave.

My point is that the recycling and formatting of descriptions meant that anti-slavery books quickly became a genre with its own conventions and formats. Certain topics were expected. Certain arguments were repeated. As I read through the Narrative I was certainly horrified by Douglass’s experiences of the systematic heartlessness, cruelty and brutality of the American slave system. But I also began to notice that the narrative is artfully arranged to press its readers’ buttons.

Consider his audience. It was the educated, bien-pensant, North American nineteenth-century middle-classes, the same high-minded New England abolitionists who attended his lectures. What were their values? They believed in family, in home, in chastity and fidelity. They believed in religion, the ten commandments, we should love our neighbour as ourselves. They believed in the sanctity of the Sabbath, that men should use chaste and dignified language and refrain from swearing. They had a sentimental post-romantic ideology of fine feelings and romantic attachments. They disapproved of alcohol and many advocated complete abstention.

As I read Douglass’s Narrative it almost felt like he had a checklist of these Victorian values in front of him and went out of his way to show how slavery, slave owners and their overseers were the exact opposite of everything the Victorians held precious, and embodied the diabolical anti-type of every single Victorian value.

Chastity

Many male slave owners had sex with their female slaves. Female slaves were unable to maintain their chastity and there was no-one to protect them. All those fair damsels being rescued from dragons in sentimental Victorian art and literature were mocked by the reality of the systematic raping of millions of helpless black women.

Family values

Rape

Male slave owners completely inverted the idea of family values by siring multiple mulatto children with numerous slave women, obviously out of wedlock. Douglass himself thought his father was probably the white owner of the plantation he was born on. It is doubtful if his mother gave anything like what we mean by ‘consent’ to him raping her. Douglass must have gone through his life knowing he was the result of white master rape.

Destroying families

Not only that, but slave owners thought nothing of breaking up families, dividing husband and wife or parents from children, at the drop of a hat, with no warning, and forever. After Colonel Lloyd hears criticism of himself from a slave who didn’t even realise Lloyd was his master (Lloyd had some 1,000 slaves), he acts decisively and cruelly.

The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death.

Douglass being separated from his mother while still a baby was no accident; it was an intrinsic part of a system which went out of its way to destroy all natural family feeling.

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labour. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.

Anti-fathers

The fathers of these half-breed slave children were happy to watch them be degraded, worked to death, punished and whipped to shreds. Pretty much the exact opposite of what the ideal, caring and loving Victorian paterfamilias ought to be. A diabolical inversion.

Truth telling and lies

Colonel Lloyd had met the slave about an errand on a road, asked him who he belonged to, was told ‘Colonel Lloyd’ and when he asked what kind of owner Lloyd was, the slave (not realising he was talking to the man himself) replied that he wasn’t treated well. Tearing him away from his family was the slave’s punishment.

OK, upsetting story: but, as is his way, Douglass then goes on to make a much wider sociological point, which is that it was this kind of event which taught all slaves never to tell the truth. Again, for the Victorians this was a much more important issue than it is to us today. Douglass was addressing the Victorian value which goes something like ‘a gentleman always tells the truth’. All Victorian mummies told their little boys and girls to always tell the truth. Well here, Douglass shows his reader, is a vast system which indoctrinates millions of slaves into never telling the truth, into hesitating to reply to any enquiry, of being afraid to tell the truth to anyone, in any situation, in case they are a spy for their owner trying to catch them out (which does, Douglass assures us, frequently happen).

Slavery was not only based on multiple lies about human nature but it created a culture of systematic lying. For God-fearing Victorian evangelists this was horrifying for who is the Father of Lies in the Bible? The Devil. Slavery does the Devil’s work by turning its wretched subjects into sinners.

Chivalry towards the fairer sex

As we all know Victorian ladies fainted at the sight of a grand piano’s legs and Victoria chaps were aroused by an exposed ankle. Slave culture drove a coach and horses through these fancy pretensions with slave women regularly stripped naked and degraded.

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

Male slave owners could have sex with any slave they wanted to. Apart from anything else the system institutionalised rape on an industrial scale. He tells the story of his Aunt Hester, a good looking woman who he now realises his master was raping. When his master catches her in the company of a male slave from another property:

Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d——d b——h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, ‘Now, you d——d b——h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!’ and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.

If chivalry means something like respect towards and consideration for ‘the fairer sex’, then slavery was its diabolical antitype, combining systematic rape, stripping naked and degradation, along with the most violent and cruel physical punishment imaginable.

Decency

Not only were the women regularly raped and/or stripped and whipped, but most slaves had very few clothes to cover their bodies with, to maintain what the Victorians thought of as their ‘decency’, and then only of the poorest quality. These often degenerated to rags. Where Douglass grew up, the children weren’t given any underclothes or garments to his their privates, just one long shirt.

The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

This indecency would have scandalised Douglass’s high-minded, religious readers.

Christian values

Slave owners simply deny that slaves are human and therefore ineligible for the rights and respect preached by Christianity (see below). By direct contradiction, Douglass makes plain at various points in the narrative that he is a practising Christian who believes the series of incidents which led to his eventual freeing were the results of a special Providence. In fact he devotes the final section of the text, the Appendix, to making an unambiguous extended declaration of his profound Christian faith.

As to whether religion had a positive effect on slave owners, the answer is No. In 1832 Douglass was transferred to the ownership of young Master Thomas Auld who turns out to be a mean and cruel owner. In August 1832 his master attends a Methodist camp meeting and is converted to the new religion, and yet it in no way moderates his behaviour. He continues to whip and punish Douglass for  numerous infringements of his petty rules. In fact, Douglass states that conversion to more active Christian belief made his master’s behaviour worse:

I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.

Douglass routinely watches Auld whip a helpless young slave woman, Henny, and piously quote scripture to justify doing so: ‘“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’ (Luke 12:47).

Not really up to managing slaves, Auld loans Douglass out to a Mr Covey, a notorious ‘nigger breaker’, even though he was a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. Once again this Mr Covey manages to be super-pious and extremely violent to his slaves. Covey whipped Douglass more than any other master. Later on Douglass is totally explicit on this issue:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighbourhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, ‘religious’ wretch.

For pious, religious Northern readers, what could be more horrifying than this hypocrisy and the devilish quoting of scripture to justify cruelty and sadism?

Bad language

The Victorians disapproved of bad language. D—n and b——h are spelled with the central letters omitted so as not to offend the gentle reader. By contrast, the overseers who managed their slaves on the owners behalves are consistently depicted as swearing their heads off and uttering all the worst oaths available.

This ‘profanity’ was far more offensive to Victorian readers than it is to us today. The height of this sin was blasphemy, to take the Lord’s name in vain, to use the name of God or Jesus in angry outbursts instead of contexts of veneration. Profanity had been a serious crime in early modern (Elizabethan and Restoration) times and was still highly frowned on in polite society in the nineteenth century. Whereas:

Mr. Severe [the overseer] was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity. Added to his cruelty, he was a profane swearer. It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk. Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath. The field was the place to witness his cruelty and profanity. His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy.

Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself.

Drunkenness

Same with alcohol. Overseers are often depicted as the worse for wear, another value whose transgression meant much more to Victorians than to us. Drunkenness was seen as a vice, and one which degraded its practitioner.

In this respect, as so many others, Douglass goes out of his way to show how Southern slaveowner behaviour was the exact antitype of ‘true’ religion and civilised values.

Whipping and blows

So much for Douglass’s enumeration of the way the institution of slavery mocked and inverted traditional Christian and Victorian values.

At a kind of higher level, slavery mocked the very idea of a civilised society. The most obvious way is that, in a civilised society, men show respect and courtesy to each other, whereas slave society was drenched in wanton cruelty and, in particular, the universality of whipping.

It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave. A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,—or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped.

Douglass shows that pretty much all slaves are whipped, some to a hair-raising degree, whipped for half an hour solid till the overseer is exhausted and strips of skin hang off the slaves’ bloody backs.

I have seen Colonel Lloyd make old Barney, a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time. Colonel Lloyd had three sons—Edward, Murray, and Daniel,—and three sons-in-law, Mr. Winder, Mr. Nicholson, and Mr. Lowndes. All of these lived at the Great House Farm, and enjoyed the luxury of whipping the servants when they pleased, from old Barney down to William Wilkes, the coach-driver. I have seen Winder make one of the house-servants stand off from him a suitable distance to be touched with the end of his whip, and at every stroke raise great ridges upon his back.

At the other end of the spectrum, less devastatingly violent but just as demoralising, are the frequent blows and cuffs and beatings which some slave owners handed out to their chattel, sometimes on a constant level, for almost all a slave’s waking hours. He evidences the household of Mrs Hamilton in Baltimore, who sat in the middle of her living room with a bullwhip by her side and:

Scarce an hour passed during the day but was marked by the blood of one of these slaves. The girls seldom passed her without her saying, ‘Move faster, you black gip!’ at the same time giving them a blow with the cowskin over the head or shoulders, often drawing the blood.

Compare and contrast with all those Victorian novels where the weak and fey female politely accepts the visitation of a charming young gentleman and they politely discourse over tea and cakes. The reality of slave society’s continual, constant violence makes a mockery of those scenes.

Injustice and murder

Obviously slavery was a vast system of injustice which gave rise to countless millions of daily instances of injustice. But Douglass is careful to include some instances of what he regards as murder, where a slave overseer simply murders a slave dead. Now entire mid-Victorian novels could rotate around just one murder, the newspapers went mad every time a salacious murder was committed and there were outcries against the heartless perpetrators or such heinous crimes. As long as the victims were white.

Douglass goes out of his way to describe the murders of several slaves, namely when the grave and serious overseer Mr Gore shoots dead Demby, a slave, for running away during a whipping and hiding in a creek. Mr Gore tells him to come out of the creek, says he’ll count to three, counts to three then shoots Demby through the head.

Or Mr Thomas Lanman of St Michael’s who murders two of his slaves, one of them by knocking his brains out with a hatchet.

The individual stories are upsetting, but the point Douglass is making is that both times the overseers got away with it. They were never charged or ‘brought to justice’. Even if the white ‘justice’ system made a few cursory attempts at an investigation it soon fizzled out, the whole thing was hushed up, and the overseers continued on their career of whipping and occasionally killing their slaves.

Slavery was a system which literally got away with murder, thus undermining the fundamental basis of all civilised society, which is the sanctity of human life.

Suicide

Nowadays we think of suicide as the result of mental illness or mental problems to which we must be sympathetic and supportive. But for the Victorians it was first and foremost a terrible sin which automatically condemned its practitioner to hell.

Which is the relevance of Douglass’s admission that it was only when he could read and began to read abolitionist tracts against slavery that the full force of the horrific iniquitous system in which he found himself became clear and he began to have suicidal thoughts. Reading had shown him the hellhole he was in but offered no escape. Anyone who has had suicidal feelings will recognise that mental condition, the feeling that you are trapped, in a box, in a cell, in a hole, with no way out except to do away with yourself.

Thus Douglass’s admission of his own suicidal ideas is an example of the double-sidedness of the narrative: it is a true and accurate first person description of his feelings. But at the same time makes a massive general point about the effect of the system on its victims, creating widespread feelings of hopelessness and despair, so frowned on by Victorians, and which often led to the actual act of suicide, which was an unambiguous sin which condemned its practitioner to hell.

In its way, suicide was more iniquitous and evil than murder, in which the victim, according to Victorian theology, at least stood the chance of going to heaven. Douglass shows that slavery was not just a system of universal violence, rape and sadistic punishment, but also spread the sin of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Are slaves human?

The fundamental crux of the issue was whether slaves were fully human. Southerners said no. They used a wide variety of arguments to support this position, but sooner or later all the arguments boil down to claiming slaves are a difference race, a different species: they were cursed to slavery in the Bible, they enjoy slavery, they were animals so they couldn’t be reasoned with and needed the firm discipline of slavery, they were congenitally unfit for freedom, and so on.

Whereas abolitionists argued that, yes, slaves are human, as human as all other humans, with the full set of human feelings, emotions, perceptions, thoughts and intellect, they are creatures of God like you and me, and so are due the entire panoply of human rights, freedom under the law, equal access to justice and so on.

It is to address the slaver accusation that slaves are somehow not fully human in their a) intellect and b) feelings that Douglass goes out of his way to prove the opposite.

Feelings

This motivation (to prove that slaves are capable of all the human emotions) underlies the passages in the first few chapters about his mother, Harriet Bailey, how they were separated when he was a baby but how she still made long pilgrimages to see her son. These passages are not only heart-breaking in their own right but are making a fundamental point: slaves have feelings, too. They are capable of just the same fine family sentiments as the most dignified of white people.

This is not a trivial issue. A key plank in the defence of slavery was that slaves were incapable of finer feelings and emotions. You could split up their family units as if they were livestock because they were incapable of feelings, you could whip them like you whipped a donkey because they didn’t feel it. Passages like the ones about his mother are at pains to utterly discredit this argument.

Intellect

As to intellect, slavers were able to use the circular argument that their slaves were ignorant, illiterate and stupid and so it was pointless trying to educate them. Douglass singles out the key moment in his escape from slavery as coming when his mistress in Baltimore, Mrs Sophia Auld, naively offered to teach him to read and write. In fact she didn’t get very far before her husband learned what she is doing and delivers a key speech:

‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.’

Hearing this was like a thunderbolt to Douglass’s mind. It lay bare in a flash the key to the white man’s domination over the black. Education. Literacy. Those were the sources of the white man’s power:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man…From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

And although his mistress obeyed her husband and abruptly stopped teaching him his letters, the next few chapters give a moving account of how Douglass picked it up on the streets, doing favours for white boys and getting them to identify the different letters for him, picking them out in the dirt or on brick walls, slowly learning to spell out the words in adverts and shop signs, painfully teaching himself to read. Also his master’s son, Master Thomas, was attending junior school and so Douglass was able to sneak looks at his schoolbooks and even swipe his old ‘copy books’ and use them to teach himself to write out letters. And once he could read, it opened up the vast treasure house of knowledge, law and power.

So Douglass’s narrative not only describes the author’s slow, painful self-education and the path to empowerment which he undertook – but the narrative itself, its sheer existence, is a massive rebuttal and disproof of a central plank of the slaver argument that blacks are somehow intrinsically incapable of thought and intellect.

This book at a stroke demolished that argument forever. Give a black child the same education as a white one and he or she can go on to become easily the equal of any white person, arguably their superior because they have had to overcome so many obstacles in a white persons’ society.

A treasury of arguments and examples

Douglass’s narrative became such a central text in abolitionist literature not only because it is a vividly written, easily accessible and heart-breaking first-hand testimony to an evil system; but also because it was a cannily assembled series of counter-arguments to all the slavers’ justifications for their system.

It can be plundered for scenes which graphically depict the stomach-churning violence or the subtly corrupting effect of slave-owning on initially ‘good’ people. But it was also a goldmine of anti-slavery arguments which could, and would, be quoted extensively in abolitionist lectures, articles and speeches for decades to come.

P.S.

I had included some photos of slaves taken for Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz in 1850 for a study in which he tried to prove that black people constituted a different and inferior race to whites. The ownership and purpose of these images is now highly contested, as is Agassiz’s reputation. I had included the photos as visual evidence of the abjection and humiliation to which slaves were subjected. But, on reflection, I think a) I was perpetuating that very objectification and humiliation by including them, and b) the people in the photos have living descendants who have complained to Harvard about the ownership and use of the images, and, to be blunt, how would I like to see photos of my great-great-great grandparents stripped naked and humiliated? So I’ve removed them.


Related links

Other posts about slavery and racism

Origins

Slavery

The civil war

20th century racism

Art

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen (2020)

The purpling corpse of Uric Burns still hung from the bridge abutment. Photographers clambered around like coked-up marmosets.
(Squeeze Me, page 186)

I suspect that the outstanding feature of this novel was intended to be the extended mockery of President Donald Trump and the First Lady, Melania Trump, who both appear as speaking characters, not actually named, but unmistakable nonetheless – the former blustering at press conferences or failing to get an erection with his mistress, the latter relieving the boredom of her gilded cage by having an affair with her Secret Service bodyguard, on one memorable occasion emerging dripping naked from her bath and ordering him to **** her.

However, two things militate against the book being quite the excoriating sensation Hiaasen and his editors may have planned:

  1. Trump has finally gone, as of January 2021, and it’s surprising – but then again, maybe not – how quickly we’ve stopped giving a damn about him and, therefore, this book has lost its satirical charge.
  2. Trump has quickly been trumped by the small matter of a worldwide pandemic which has rocked every aspect of our societies, and shows no signs of going away.

Presumably Hiaasen was putting the finishing touches to this novel in spring 2020 when the pandemic first arrived. He’s been canny enough to slip references to it into the narrative but it doesn’t affect the plot at all; indeed, it would be difficult to see how you could have a comedy thriller set during a lockdown. But somehow even the fleeting references to COVID (pages 8, 29, 56, 105) are enough to drag the reader out of Hiaasen’s grotesque fantasy-land and into our all-too-real present. They undermine the satire.

Plot summary

As usual, as soon as she opens a Hiaasen novel the reader is bombarded with a host of characters, each with their own complex backstories and history, who are brought together by a premise, by one specific incident, the more garish and grotesque the better, whose ramifications rumble on and spread out and ensnare everyone in comic (and sometimes very violent) consequences for just shy of 400 pages.

Angie Armstrong

Angela ‘Angie’ Armstrong runs a wild animal control company ‘Discreet Captures’ i.e. if you’ve got a wild raccoon in your kitchen or a bear blunders into your garden, Angie’s the woman you call to sort it out. She’s five foot three tall and her Army father taught her to address all males as ‘sir’. She was married for a while to Dustin, 21 years older and a good-looking life coach (p.44). However, Dustin didn’t like critters at all, which put a strain on the marriage, then Angie caught him being unfaithful (as happens in most Hiaasen marriages), in this case with an equestrian named Alexandria, so Angie divorced him. She still keeps in touch with Dustin’s son, grown-up, reasonable Joel, who comes to stay every other weekend. Angie’s latest boyfriend is a Merrill Lynch banker named Jesse, who gets casually dumped fairly early on in the story (p.106).

Angie got a job as a wildlife officer with the state of Florida but blew this when out on patrol she saw a drunken slob deliberately run his airboat over a grazing deer. Angie motored straight over and arrested the man, who she refers to as ‘the fuckstick’ (p.37). The fuckstick made the mistake of continuing to insult and abuse her so intensely that she fed his left arm into the maw of a tame alligator named Lola. Yes. Extreme. Angie takes no shit from anyone.

The case went to court where she learned the fuckstick’s name was Pruitt. He was fined but Angie herself was sent to Gadsden prison for 14 months for use of excessive force, and discharged from state service ie lost her job. Now, every day at 6pm, Pruitt phones up from a different payphone and breathes revolting threats and abuse down the phone. Angie gives sardonic replies and drives him mad by never losing her temper and referring to him as ‘sir’ throughout.

Angie is, in other words, the latest in a line of tough Hiaasen heroines such as Merry Mansfield in Razor Girl, Honey Santana in Nature Girl, Jolayne Lucks in Lucky You or Erin in Strip Tease.

The Burmese python

Late one night Angie gets a call from Tripp Teabull, manager of the Lipid Estate in Palm Beach. This is a huge mansion complete with ballroom, manicured grounds and ornamental lake where very up-scale parties, receptions and fund raisers are held. Costs quarter of a million to hire for the night without catering.

Teabull is calling because the head gardener, Mauricio, and his crew have discovered an eighteen-foot-long Burmese python lazing in the branches of one of the trees in the grounds with a big lump half way down it. As so often, Hiaasen pauses the narrative for a few pages to give a background explanation of an aspect of his novel, in this case the genuine proliferation of Burmese pythons in South Florida: they were originally bought as pets but managed to escape into the wild, whose tropical climate suits them perfectly.

The novel opens on the night of a big right-wing political fundraiser being given at the Lipid Estate and attended by the usual set of South Florida millionaires, their wives and widows. It opens just at the moment when one of a circle of rich widows, 72-year-old Katherine ‘Kiki’ Pew Fitzsimmons has gone missing, leaving only a cocktail glass and one shoe down by the lake.

Little old lady missing? Huge python with a suggestive bulge in its gut? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to instantly suspect the two are connected.

So Angie is called out to the Estate and charged with getting rid of the python without using a gun or anything which might scare the super-rich guests up in the main house. After some faffing she decapitates the python with a razor sharp machete and gets some of the estate’s bigger guys to roll it up into a coil, stuff it into a box along with ice, put the head in a separate (smaller) box, and carry them to her pickup truck.

Then she drives it to the storage units (Safe’n’Sound) where she stores dead animals on ice before she’s got enough to make a full load and it’s worth driving a hundred miles west into the wilderness where she’s developed a secret burial ground for them. More respectful, and causes less questions, than just dumping them in the garbage.

Uric and the Prince

Job done, right? However, shortly afterwards Angie’s apartment is burglarised, the crims taking her checkbook and laptop. This, we discover, is at the behest of none other than Teabull, the Lipid Estate manager. Terrified that the python really ate the old millionairess Kiki, he wants to totally get rid of the evidence and so commissioned a couple of lowlifes, Uric Burns, and his assistant, ‘a dull-eyed fuckwit’ (p.48) who insists on being called Prince Paladin (real name is Keever Bracco, p.83) to find out where Angie stores her dead animals and to steal back the python corpse and safely dispose of it where cops will never find it.

These two dumb gimps stole Angie’s laptop in order to find out what storage depot Angie uses, in order to break into that and steal the python, but they are so immensely dim that after driving round all night, they report right back to the Lipid estate to ask Teabull where to take it. The latter is understandably  furious since the whole purpose of the heist was to remove the snake as far as humanly possible from the Lipid Estate and here they are, having brought it right back and risking maximum incrimination!

Teabull hurriedly gives the crooks details of a new construction site going up out west, which is still having the foundations laid, with big holes being filled with cement. Teabull pulls a favour with the site foreman, Jackson, buying his crew lunch at a local restaurant so that the site is empty at just the right time for Uric and the Prince to rock up and excavate a hole in the soggy cement. But when they open the boot to bury the snake they find it has thoroughly defrosted and not only that, it has kind of unzipped to reveal a little old lady folded up inside its gut. After they’ve stopped throwing up, the pair bury the lady in the hole in the concrete but there isn’t time to find a new bit of fresh cement and dig a hole in it, before the crew start arriving back from lunch so the two dimwits drive off at speed with a decomposing python in their boot.

However, there’s a detail. Uric is quicker to stop leaning away and throwing up when they first open the boot than his accomplice Prince Paladin and so spots that the decaying lady is wearing big diamond earrings and a necklace of conch pearls. He grabs them while the Prince is still puking. But in trying to get the pearl necklace off, Uric snaps it and a number of pearls roll free into the boot.

Second unfortunate thing is that, when the crims drive off at speed they, hit one of those railway lines crossing the road and embedded in it, which gives the car enough of a big bump to spring the boot open with the result that the snake corpse goes flying out along with some of the incriminating pearls…

Fay Riptoad

Back to Kiki’s rich friends. It is a minor riff but quite funny the way Hiaasen characterises the really rich whose circle old Kiki inhabited by showing that everyone belongs to this or that eminent family the source of whose wealth is humorously signposted along with their surname. Thus Kiki was the grand-daughter of Dallas Austin Pew ‘of the aerosol Pews’; her first husband was Huff Cornbright, ‘of the anti-freeze and real estate Cornbrights’; after Huff drowned while fishing, she remarried Mott Fitzsimmons ‘of the asbestos and textile Fitzsimmonses’; and she is good friends with Fay Alex Riptoad ‘of the compost and iron ore Riptoads’. (The same gag is repeated again on page 122).

This latter lady, Fay Alex, is head of the POTUS Pussies, shrill ageing cheerleaders for ‘the new, crude-spoken commander-in-chief’ (p.8). Being tremendously bossy, on the night Kiki goes missing, Fay takes it on herself to phone and summon the local Palm Beach chief of police, Jerry Crosby (backstory p.53) and insisting that he drop everything to search for her missing friend. Luckily Jerry has developed ample skills at handling the very rich without losing his temper.

Enter the First Lady

Now, I hear you ask, where does the president’s wife come into all this? Well, she is travelling in the usual ten-car motorcade from the president’s residence, the ironically named Casa Bellicosa, when it draws to a halt because the car in front has come across a decapitated python lying across the road. Yep, the First Lady’s motorcade has come across the very same snake corpse which flew out the boot as Uric and the Prince fled the building site where they’d buried Kiki only a few minutes earlier.

In other words, Tripp Teabull wanted the python disposed of as discreetly as possible but instead, due to Uric’s incompetence, it has come to the attention of the President’s wife and the US Secret Service.

The president’s wife’s bodyguards and secret agents swarm everywhere talking into their lapel radios like they do in the movies, before establishing it’s just a weird coincidence rather than some kind of terrorist threat. But one thing leads to another and the security forces identify Angie Armstrong as a leading animal wrangler in the locality. With the result that the Secret Service calls her in to deal with the snake corpse and she is, understandably puzzled, that she is dealing with the very snake corpse she had safely stashed in the storage depot a day earlier. At this point she tells the authorities all about how her apartment was burgled and then her storage area broken into and the snake being stolen, and they all ask themselves: Why?

So this is how Angie finds herself being interviewed by Special Agent Paul Ryskamp, who’s tasked by the Feds with following up on the weird incident which delayed the First Lady’s motorcade. He’s a nice guy. She’s a nice girl. Can you see where this is heading?

Diego Beltrán

So far, so macabre and gruesome and satirical. Things take a notably more serious turn when we discover that on the very same night that a drunk, stoned Kiki was eaten by a giant python, a small people smuggling boat hit the beach not far away, carrying illegal immigrants from Central America including one Diego Beltrán who is to become a dominant figure in the narrative.

As it happens, Diego has already been resident in the States where he had a visa to stay while he completed a degree, so he’s well educated and fluent in English and duly returned to his native Honduras. But life didn’t work out back home, so now here he is, having paid to be smuggled back into the States, along with 20 other illegals.

After they’re dumped on the beach, the passengers all split up. Diego is tramping along a highway when he discovers, at the place a rail line crosses it, something gleaming down in the groove of the track and picks up a shiny conch pearl, obviously one of the pearls from Kiki’s necklace. It is a fateful moment.

Diego goes on to get a low-paid manual job but a few days later is picked up in a sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When he’s taken to the police station and turns out his pockets, everyone sees the conch pearl. It is listed and reported, and this triggers a match with missing person Kiki Fitzsimmons, who is reported as last seen wearing diamond earrings and a conch pearl necklace.

So before he knows it, Diego has been accused by the cops of murdering Kiki. Not only that but, because the python corpse held up the First Lady’s motorcade, the FBI get involved, too. Not only that, but the name of this suspect and the fact that he’s an illegal have been quickly gathered by the poisonous Fay Riptoad and passed on, via her close contacts, to the dim, racist, know-nothing, knee-jerk ‘commander in chief’ and, to the horror of all the good reasonable people in the book (namely Angie,  local police chief Jerry Crosby and Paul Ryskamp) the C-in-C delivers an ad lib speech from his golf course, where he singles out the murder of his ‘good friend’ Kiki Fitzsimmons by illegal immigrant Diego Beltrán as just the kind of dire threat from foreigners and criminals which America is facing. ‘That’s why we gotta build a wall, folks, to keep these murderers and rapists out of our beautiful country’ etc.

Within hours an angry mob of C-in-C supporters has assembled outside the Palm Beach County jailhouse where Diego is being held, egged on by right-wing talk-show radio hosts, demanding his immediate lynching or hanging. His name is quickly converted into a slogan chanted by the mob and repeated in the media: ‘No More Diegos!’

This barely needs any commentary. It is intended to be scalding satire on the stupidity and bigoted xenophobia of the moronic president and his base.

Uric and the Prince are identified

Angie, Jerry and Paul had each in their ways been quietly following up on identifying the crooks who burgled Angie and stole the python. They have got as far as identifying Uric and the Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco from various photos and CCTV footage.

Now there is a further plot development because, when a reward is offered for any news about Kiki, not too bright Uric decides he’ll claim it, so he calls the anonymous crime hotline and reveals where the body of Kiki is buried in the recently laid concrete of a new housing development and also accuses the Prince of carrying out the crime.

When Kiki’s body is then found, it confirms Uric’s story, and closed circuit TV from the site confirms the make of car the crims used, and also shows it driving off at speed. A related camera at the railway crossing shows clear as day how this same car momentarily jumped into the air as it hit the rail bump, the boot flew open and a massive snake corpse flew out.

The good guys form a team

Angie is the link between Jerry the police chief and Paul the FBI agent and by about page 200 she invites them both to a bar for a meal where they meet and form a kind of team. By now they have pretty much all the evidence they need to piece together the sequence of events:

  • python swallows Kiki
  • Angie kills python and takes it to storage on ice
  • Teabull commissions Uric and the Prince to break into Angie’s apartment, find the name of the storage site, break into that and steal the python
  • they go to bury it at the building site but discover Kiki’s body inside the snake, bury that and run out of time to dig a separate body for the snake so drive off at speed
  • when they hit the rail line the boot flies open and the snake flies out but they carry on driving
  • minutes later the First Lady’s motorcade arrives and is halted while the Feds check out the weird dead snake, then eventually move on
  • Angie is called for a second time to dispose of the snake and is brought into contact with the authorities
  • that night Diego Beltrán is walking along the same road when he spots a conch pearl amid the rails
  • a few days later he’s picked up by the authorities as an illegal and the pearl is discovered, connecting him to Kiki
  • somehow the connection between dead Kiki, the pearls and an illegal immigrant is leaked to the President who immediately shapes it to his anti-immigrant narrative and he gives an extempore speech in which he blames Diego for Kiki’s murder
  • a crowd assembles outside the Palm Beach County Gaol where he’s being held, the story goes all over the national press and Diego becomes a symptom of everything evil and wicked which is threatening the US of A

Angie, Jerry and Paul are agonisingly aware that Diego is completely innocent, but the thing has now got so big and so inflamed that it’s going to be hard if not impossible to shift the narrative, and risky for the two lawmen to get involved. Difficult for individuals to go up against the full force of the Presidential propaganda machine and his attack media. The whole thing has spiralled into, as Angie puts it: ‘a five-star clusterfuck’ (p.153).

Donald and Melania Trump

I knew Trump was referenced in the book but I was curious to see how Hiaasen would handle it. Initially he is a peripheral figure, satirically referred to throughout as ‘the commander in chief’. Presumably it is for legal purposes that he is never referred to by name. His Miami home is jokily referred to as ‘Casa Bellicosa’. Some of his (fictional tweets) are quote verbatim, full of spelling and grammar mistakes.

It is a winning piece of satire that the rich old ladies have formed a club named the POTUS Pussies, referencing the commander-in-chief’s famous quote about grabbing pussy. He is referred to as crude and blustering, as ‘that dysfunctional hump in the White House’ (p.189) – all in all, par for the course, by the standards of American liberals who subjected Trump to four years of scathing criticism.

Then about half way through the novel things change when the Trump figure directly intervenes in the Diego case. Things change from being generalised satire about his crude blustering character to becoming a concrete demonstration of what his rabble-rousing xenophobia means for a real individual, a real person whose life is being wrecked. The commander-in-chief figure changes from being merely pathetic to becoming positively malevolent.

In the earlier parts of the book there are more scenes featuring Melania Trump, riding in the motorcade, prowling her private apartments at the Casa Bellicosa, bored and horny.

I wonder whether it was for legal reasons that neither of them are named. The president is referred to as  the president or commander-in-chief, never by name. Indeed, early on Hiaasen adopts the comic strategy of referring to both of them by the codewords assigned to them by the Secret Service.

Thus Melania is never named, but referred to throughout as Mockingbird, her codename, a curiously poignant name. The president’s codeword is Mastodon, which he loves because it sounds mighty. With typical ignorance he asks if he can visit a zoo to see some real-life mastodons but nobody is brave enough to tell him that mastodons, a generic term for woolly mammoths and suchlike, died out during the last ice age.

We see Mockingbird in her car, interacting with her dishy bodyguard, named ‘Keith Josephson’ (which is actually a pseudonym assigned him by the service; his birth name was Ahmet Youssef which, understandably, the Service want to keep concealed from the xenophobic commander in chief, p.86, another piece of satire on the president’s idiotic xenophobia. Youssef’s full backstory is given on pages 281 to 283).

Possibly the most scandalous thing in the book is that Mockingbird is described as having an affair with Youssef/Keith. We first realise this when she insists he hands her a towel as she emerges naked from a luxury bath, and she then orders him to **** her. Then we get used to her ordering him to service her at short notice in a variety of luxury locations. But as the story progresses we realise he, Keith/Youssef, is genuinely in love with her, genuinely thinks she is different with him, even after people start to talk and rumours about them to circulate.

Trump insults

The funny thing is that Donald Trump had already been referenced in a number of earlier Hiaasen novels, way before he showed any political ambitions, as an epitome of American over-wealthy  narcissism. It’s an epic irony that the man Hiaasen had been mocking for decades as an embodiment of American shallowness ended up becoming 45th President of the United States. The fact it happened is beyond satire and what it says about contemporary American society needs no comment.

The president, according to those who know him best:

  • has no memory
  • has feet like moist loaves
  • is a ‘fat toad’ (p.248)
  • is ‘paranoid, draft-dodging, whore hopping…’ (p.261)
  • is described as ‘Presidential Shitweasel’ (p.300) and ‘the climate-denier-in-chief’ (p.301) by Skink
  • is an ‘ignorant clown’ – Ryskval (p.369)
  • is a ‘lying puke-bucket’ – Angie (p.371)

He has a mistress, Suzy Spooner (p.293), a chunky pole dancer who calls herself a nutritionist. We meet the poor woman on several occasions, desperately helping the president to adopt a sex position which can work round his bloated gut and the fact he can no longer sustain an erection. It is typical Hiaasen/typical America, that Suzy is at the same time hawking round New York publishers a kiss-and-tell memoir in which she compares the President’s gonads to ‘dessicated chickpeas’ and describes how he snorts like a wildebeest when he climaxes (pages 293 and 294).

The president struggles mightily to have a bowel motion, emerging from the can puffing and panting, and then struggles to get a hold of his belt buckle ‘below the rolling sea of his gut’ (p.313). He’s portrayed as being fully aware of the ‘phoney Facebook ads’ paid for by his supporters (p.314). When he forgets that her dog died over a year ago, Mockingbird simply calls him ‘such a dick’ (p.315).

Tut tut. Not very respectful.

Plot developments

Uric proves what a scumbag he is by murdering his assistant, the dim-witted Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco, weighingt down his body and dumping it in a canal near where he dumped the stolen car they drove the snake around in. This is a rookie crim error, meaning both are soon discovered by the cops.

Uric’s anxiety about the cops’ discovery is itself short-lived as he himself is swiftly bumped off by a hitman hired by the Lipid Estate manager Teabull, who is quickly emerging as the daemon ex machina of the plot.

Rather unprofessionally, Uric’s body is hanged from a suspension bridge along with a suicide note in which he claims complete responsibility for killing Kiki, stealing her jewels and then murdering his accomplice – this is Teabull’s pathetic attempt to get the whole damn story shut down. To little avail. When ‘our team’ of Angie, Jerry and Paul hear about it and read the note they realise how fake it is.

The paranoid rich i.e. Fay Alex Riptoad et al, and their attack dog media, soon embellish the Diego situation to have him being a member of the fearsome DBC-88, the ‘Diego Border Cartel’. Nobody knows what 88 means but it sounds scary (p.221). It is an example of the general fictionalisation of American life in which malicious rumours instantly become poisonous political fact.

To complete his tidy-up strategy, Teabull hires an arsonist to lure Angie in her truck to a fake call-out in a remote location as the sun is setting, and the guy lobs a firebomb in the back of her truck. Both she and Joel who she’d taken along, scramble out of the truck which melts down and is a write-off. But this doesn’t put Angie off, was never likely to.

In the event all Teabull’s efforts come to naught as he is sacked from his job at the Lipid Estate as the media furore around Diego snowballs. A TV station runs an entirely fictitious ‘reconstruction’ of the night Diego and his dastardly accomplices supposedly broke into the estate and abducted little old Kiki,  an entirely fictional recreation which leads to just about every rich charity cancelling its bookings at the Lipid mansion, hence Teabull’s sacking. It is also another example of the fictionalisation of American journalism, the triumph of fakery over news.

Mockingbird’s affair with her Secret Service man becomes increasingly intense. His superior, the same Paul Ryskamp who is beginning an affair with Angie, learns about Keith and the First Lady and warns him off, and steps are taken to reassign him, but Mockingbird intervenes to keep him around as her lover. She and the President never even touch each other, let alone sleep together. Anyway, he’s screwing Suzi Spooner so Mockingbird has no moral qualms.

The return of Skink

But the big revelation of the last third of the novel is the Return of Skink, yes everybody, Skink! Skink is back! And his trusty helper and minder, Jim Tile, an old man now, who walks with a cane and lives at the Rainbow of Life Senior Centre. It’s Jim who gets in touch with Angie Armstrong, tells her he sat in back during her court case for mutilating Pruitt on behalf of a friend who admired her style i.e. the old eco-vigilante and ex-governor, once known as Clinton Tyree, who has for a long time now (well, ever since Hiaasen’s second novel), gone under the pseudonym Skink.

Jim gives Angie a map to Skink’s secret base deep in the Everglades and she hires a flatboater to take her out there. Just to keep up his quota of outlandish concepts, Hiaasen tells us that in the empty  eye socket where Skink usually sports a glass eye, he is currently incubating an iguana egg. This doesn’t faze Angie, used to all kinds of weird critter situations, so she passes the Skink test.

He then offers her some roadkill coyote for dinner, which is standard. But we discover he has a new habit: he is continually micro-dosing himself with acid to stave off boredom and despair, and he has slipped a little into her rum.

Which explains why, when Skink takes her into his snake enclosure, Angie finds them glowing with fiery red eyes and changing colour. Snake enclosure? Yes. For it is Skink who has been collecting king-sized pythons and deploying them in Presidential hangouts. He was responsible for deploying mega pythons into: a vanload of the President’s favourite key lime pies; the First Lady’s favourite fashion boutique, plus 2 or 3 other random locations. Did he deploy the monster python which ate Kiki?

Anyway, his obsession with giant pythons explains why Skink’s camp is among trees from which hang hundreds of long dried snakeskins, which the pythons have shed. Half way through their meeting, Angie realises that Skink not only took interest in her trial but paid for her defence lawyer. So he has deep involvement with her going back some way. With that revelation, he shoos Angie back to the shore of the island where the airboat driver has returned to collect her, and she stumbles, dazed, back towards civilisation after this trippy encounter with Hiaasen’s great anti-hero.

The novel heads towards the traditional Big Climax, which is the so-called Commander’s Ball, hosted by Mastodon at the Casa Bellicosa. Seems pretty obvious Skink has got something big planned, like releasing all the pythons he’s been collecting.

Meanwhile, back in what you could call the dirty realist end of the plot, Diego, still in prison, foils one attack by a white supremacist, but is then badly stabbed and beaten up by some ‘Aryan Brothers’. (Look them up. American prisons are full of white supremacist groups. No wonder our media admire America so much: so much to copy, so much to learn from.)

Diego is hospitalised, his plight is dire, a friendly Hispanic tells him there’s a ten grand bounty on his head, eleven if they cut off his ‘nut sack’. His defence lawyers quit because they’ve been receiving death threats. The gaol guards are also threatened and/or tired of the extra hassle of protecting him. They include a new leather belt in his next laundry delivery. One of them gives him a full bottle of sleeping pills. These are not-too-subtle hints that he kill himself. Thus the fate of illegals in the US ‘justice’ system’ i.e. hounded to death.

The President’s Ball

Well, the President’s Ball does serve as the climax to the novel alright, though, to tell the truth, it is a little underwhelming. Highlights are:

1. Throughout the novel there’s been a running thread about the President’s tanning sunbed, and the guys who service and clean it. In the days leading up to the ball there are some unexplained malfunctions so it is no real surprise when it goes badly wrong just hours before the big event, turning the President’s face aubergine purple and burning his hair. With the result that he appears on the stage and delivers a big speech hiding his face behind the only thing they could rustle up at short notice – a Bakongo tribal fertility mask!!!! (p.350) More clearly than ever, you can see how Hiaasen goes way beyond ‘satire’ into a realm of lunatic farce.

2. Mastodon addresses his puzzled millionaire guests from behind his African mask but, when he turns to introduce his lovely wife, she isn’t there – and this is because she is in her private rooms having wild sex with Special Agent Keith/Youssef (in a tiny detail, she is riding him cowgirl style, the position which I’ve noticed, is favoured by all of Hiaasen’s strong, independent female protagonists)

3. As we might have predicted, a massive Burmese python does turn up in the grounds of the Casa Bellicosa, where it disturbs the most repellent of the POTUS Pussies, the cohort of super-rich widow supporters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fay Alex Riptoad. Unfortunately the python interruption occurs just as she is having the front of her expensive dress unbuttoned by an over-sexed guest, Stanleigh Cobo, who thinks he’s ingested a heroic amount of erection-inducing narwhal horn (a long story about erectile dysfunction and the lengths the rich will go to in order to secure cures).

Secret Agent Paul Ryskval had made sure to invite Angie Armstrong to the ball and so, when Fay’s screams attract all the guests, Angie takes centre stage, the only one with the balls and expertise to confront the huge swaying python and Angie suddenly realises that it is tripping. Skink is dosing his giant pythons with LSD.

Still, in the end, Angie manages to decapitate this one like the last one, although her pretty ball dress does get covered in spraying blood in the process. Once the body is taken away by ground staff, and the guests wander off gossiping, Angie goes to the ladies loo to have a good cry. When she comes out, gentlemanly special agent Ryskamp tells her how fabulous she looks and how brave she was. Which cheers her up, a bit.

Angie and the First Lady

The president addressing the crowd in an African mask and a tripping python menacing his chief cheerleader just as she is being undressed for sex, this ought to be funny, and it reads fairly funny in summary, but in practice, somehow, I found it a bit inevitable and, I’m afraid, underwhelming. Maybe I’ve read too many Hiaasens and know what to expect.

But if the doomed gala ball turns out to be a bit of a damp squib, maybe what follows at the end of the evening is the real climax of the plot. Angie stays at the ball after the python episode and slips a message to the First Lady asking to see her. Mockingbird is curious to meet the woman who dealt with the giant snake and so agrees, and the two women meet on the seawall of the Casa Bellicosa (accompanied at a distance by all Mockingbird’s security men).

Here Angie explains that a) she knows all about Mockingbird’s affair with Keith, and b) the fact that Keith is a Muslim would play terribly with the C-in-C’s supporter, and c) she knows all about the President’s affair with the pole dancer, d) who is writing a no-holds-barred memoir about her affair with the President.

She, Angie, will blow all this wide open, leak all these facts to the press, ruin everyone’s lives, unless Mockingbird uses her influence, and this threat, to get the President to give Diego Beltrán a full pardon and fast track his appeal for political asylum.

Which is what Mockingbird proceeds to do, encountering the President as he stumbles out of a state room where he just tried and miserably failed to take the pole dancer from behind. Mockingbird makes plain she will blow the whole gaff, expose their sham marriage and list his many affairs to the press unless he releases Diego. So Mastodon caves in.

I hadn’t mentioned that Jim Tile had used some old connections to get invited to the president’s ball, dressing snappily and toting a stylish cane. Right at the end of the evening, after she has had her seawall meeting, he accompanies Angie out onto the steps of the mansion as chauffeur-driven cars line up to collect the super-rich. Jim climbs into one which, she suddenly realises, is driven by Skink. She races after it, flags it down, and is amazed at Skink’s stylish appearance. He has washed and combed his hair and put on a suit specially.

I thought the funniest thing in the entire book was the fact that the iguana whose egg he had been carrying in his empty eye socket has now hatched.

Skink smiled down at the breast pocket of his suit jacket. A little bright green head was peeking out. ‘We’re working on our manners,’ Skink whispered. (p.378)

It’s almost the only moment of gentleness. There’s plenty of humour elsewhere in the book, but it’s of the savage, violent, macabre or super-cynical fuckstick variety. This was one tiny moment of humanity. Thank you, Skink.

It’s quickly over though because when Angie asks what that loud banging is, Skink explains it’s her stalker, Pruitt, stashed in the boot of the car. Skink is going to take him out to the wilderness to teach him ‘how to be at one with nature’. That’s comedy, too, but of the more tough-minded, cruel variety.

Epilogue

Diego Beltrán is freed on orders from the president, is smuggled out the back of the gaol, given a wig and fake moustache and transported north to New Jersey.

Turns out that Skink unleashed not one but a host of monster pythons at a number of other charity balls on the same night. Police chief Jerry Crosby drove round to all of the events, shooting them dead, but was filmed doing so, clips which made their way onto YouTube and killed the Florida hospitality sector stone dead. Why have a party in Florida if a python might eat your guests? The industry’s anger falls on the chief and he quits before he’s fired.

Mockingbird has Youssef acknowledged as her lover, but still kept on by the Secret Service because she blackmails the Secret Service bosses with her knowledge of a hushed-up drug orgy among the agents.

On the last pages Angie hires an airboat and skims out through the Everglades to visit Skink in his new base. No more snakes, he transported them all north to freedom. And Pruitt? Skink attached an electronic tracking collar round his neck and set him free in the wilderness. He’s still alive, somewhere.

And then the punchline to the whole story: the huge Burmese python which ate Kiki Fitzsimmons? Turns out it wasn’t Skink’s idea. He didn’t set it loose on the Lipid Estate. It made its own way there. It was a normal, free python doing its own thing. Nothing to do with Skink, the incident only gave him the inspiration for his later battle plan. Angie laughs with relief, Skink is off the hook and takes none of the blame.

THE END.

The environment

This is the first novel in his long career where Hiaasen seems to have given up on saving the environment which is, I think, the appropriate response. The fight to save the environment has been decisively lost. Eco-systems around the world, along with the countless species they contain, are being exterminated on a daily basis. Global warming is only one aspect of the man-made destruction of the environment, of all environments, going on all the time, everywhere, as Angie mournfully reflects:

It didn’t seem to matter who was in power – nothing got better in the besieged, breathtaking world she cared about most. The Everglades would never be the lush unbroken river it once was; the shallows of Florida Bay would never be as pure and sparkling with fish; the bleached dying reefs of the Keys would never bloom fully back to life. Being overrun and exploited was the historical fate of places so rare and beautiful…

The President of the United States was a soulless imbecile who hated the outdoors but, in Angie’s view, at this point Teddy Roosevelt himself couldn’t turn the tide if he came back from the dead. All the treasured wilderness that had been sacrificed at the altar of growth was gone for all time. More disappeared every day; nothing ever changed except the speed of destruction, and only because there were fewer pristine pieces to sell off, carve up and pave. (p.318)

Fruity and novel language

Hiaasen’s characters swear freely and so does the narrator. ‘Fuckstick’, ‘shitbird’, ‘cockhead’ and ‘Señor Fuckwhistle’ (p.258) being some of the nicer expressions characters use about each other. Here are some other samples of state-of-the-art Yankee slang:

  • Prince was flipping through channels like a gacked-up chimp. (p.74)
  • ‘The Feds cut your time ’cause you flipped. You rat-fucked your friends.’ (p.74) = betrayed.
  • ‘Hit the shower, bro’. You smell like a fucking grow house.’ (p.173) I think ‘grow house’ means the kind of indoors greenhouse space used to grow marijuana.
  • Uric ended up paying the Prince the full three hundred he wanted, which he ended up spending on chronic. (p.173) ‘Among cannabis consumers, chronic can be used as slang for marijuana itself, but many users reserve the term for particularly potent strains of the plant’ (Dictionary.com)
  • nutsack = scrotum
  • knuckle bump, aka fist bump
  • ‘I got a dope new truck’ (p.214) – where ‘dope’ presumably means cool, neat, great.
  • ‘I can’t take a chance that he hasn’t suddenly stripped his gears.’ (p.242) meaning lost it, gone mad, gone psycho.
  • Two white-clad Brits stood in wait while the driver, whose name was Guppo, backed up the gaily painted Betancourt Pastries chariot. (p.247) ‘Stood in wait’?
  • One day Nutter was approached in the chow line by an inmate who said a group of patriots on the outside was offering serious bank for the death of Diego Beltrán. (p.254) = big money
  • A buzz kill = something which destroys the mood, specially a romantic mood around sex (p.280)
  • Studly = like a stud, as in ‘a studly lover’ (p.326)
  • Reamed = getting reamed, being reamed = a strong telling-off (p.33)
  • Rails = lines of cocaine (p.366)
  • Toasted = stoned (p.380)

Fleabag

I was surprised when Hiaasen has his sympathetic protagonist, Angie, in a spare evening, catch an episode of Fleabag, the award-winning British TV series. He also has a character, the one-handed psycho Pruitt, reference Game of Thrones, specifically the one-handed character Jaime Lannister (p.257). Gotta keep up with the popular culture, I suppose.


Credit

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2020. All references are to the 2021 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

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)

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2016)

‘This is Florida, the land of batshit, trigger-happy motherfuckers.’ (p.82)

Andrew Yancy

The most notable thing about Hiaasen’s 14th novel is that it is a direct sequel to his 13th, featuring the same protagonist (former Monroe County detective Andrew Yancy), the same girlfriend he ended that novel with (Dr Rosa Campesino), and the same running feud with the owners of the vacant lot next to his, on the island of Big Pine Key, who are threatening to build a mansion which will block out Yancy’s restful view of the sunset.

At the start of book 13 Yancy was kicked off the small Monroe County police force for assaulting the husband of his then-mistress. Bonnie Witt. The easy-going head of the Monroe police, Sonny Summers, had to drop Yancy after the press furore about the assault, but got him a job he cordially hates, as a health and safety or ‘roach’ inspector of local restaurants.

Yancy is ‘a tall, lean man with a baked-in Florida tan’ (p.134) in his early 40s. He is a regular smoker of dope, who sometimes does his job or gets involved in the novel’s various criminal escapades, half-stoned. Like other Hiaasen heroes he is too honest and blunt for his own good, ‘prone to an acid bluntness that produced poor results careerwise…’ (p.55)

As usual with Hiaasen, Yancy was soon joined by a blizzard of other characters, all of whom are given complicated backstories and then placed in ever-complexifying situations and interlinking storylines.

Buck Nance

The central thread which just about keeps all the complex storylines of this novel together concerns a popular reality TV show titled Bayou Brethren, about a family of rednecks who live and bicker on a chicken farm in the Florida panhandle.

The star of the show is one Buck Nance, a middle-aged redneck with a long salt-and-pepper beard, who runs the chicken farm and so has acquired the ironic nickname Captain Cock (p.58). He lords it over his brothers, has a tough bitching wife, Krystal, but is also screwing a ‘sex-crazed’ mistress with the porny name of Miracle, on the side. (It is a given in all Hiaasen novels, that American marriage entails infidelity.)

In reality, like everything in Hiaasen, the entire show is a meretricious fake and a scam. Buck’s real name is Matthew Romberg and he and his three brothers ( Bradley (TV name: Junior), Henry (TV name: Buddy) and Todd (TV name: Clee Roy, p.68) are actually from rural Wisconsin.

They were in an unsuccessful band named Grand Funk Romberg (a jokey riff on the actual American hard rock group, Grand Funk Railroad) when they were talent-spotted on account of their hick appearance and cast as the central characters in the new show (p.71). The brothers have had to be extensively coached in every aspect of the Florida redneck life which their adoring fans consider them to epitomise: the Cajun accent, the chewing tobacco, the down-home oaths and jokes, it’s all fake.

Lane is kidnapped

The novel opens with Buck’s agent, Lane Coolman, a no-nonsense, cynical New York talent agent working for Platinum Artists Management who owes his career and wages and expense account lifestyle to Buck’s success, arriving in Miami to supervise some ‘gigs’ Buck is scheduled to give. These ‘gigs’ consist of Buck sitting up on stage telling good ole boy stories and jokes while a guitarist noodles folk melodies behind him and Lane supports and whispers prompts from the wings.

Instead, as he drives from the airport to his hotel, Lane is kidnapped by the criminal Zeto (full name Juan Zeto-Fernandez) and his sexy, unhinged sidekick, Merry Mansfield. They use a technique known as ‘bump and grab’ whereby Merry bumps her (stolen) car into the rear of Lane’s hire car. When he pulls over and gets out to remonstrate, he notices her jeans are down to her knees and her knickers pulled down and she is shaving her pubic hair while she is driving. Merry is the Razor Girl of the book’s title.

Lane is speechless with astonishment and anger, as he watches Merry apologetically pull up her panties, then quickly becomes addled with lust. Thus, when Merry declares her car a write-off and asks if he can give her a lift to the nearest service station, Lane readily agrees. But when they get there, Zeto is waiting with a gun, climbs into the passenger seat and orders him to drive. He’s done gone and been kidnapped, the sucker.

Martin Trebeaux and beach renourishment

In fact, typically for Hiaasen’s comedies of accidents and misadventures, it turns out Zeto and Merry have grabbed the wrong guy. Zeto had been hired by a New York mobster, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola, from the Calzone crime family (p.139) to kidnap a crooked businessman named Martin Trebeaux, who was scheduled to drive a similar colour car along the same highway at the same time and looks similar to Lane. Oops.

Why was Trebeaux the intended target of a grab? This requires a bit of explanation. Trebeaux runs a big company resanding Florida beaches in a process known as ‘beach renourishment’. This is because global warming and rising sea levels are washing away lots of Florida’s luxury sandy beaches. Trebeaux’s company, Sedimental Journeys, rakes up tonnes of sand from just offshore and replenishes vanishing beaches.

So far, so reasonable. But Trebeaux is a crook. His company has been dogged by scandal. Firstly, the resanding process tends to muddy up the water and produce thousands of dead fish which wash up ashore, putting off the very tourists it’s meant to attract. Discovering this early on, Trebeaux moved his  sand dredging operation to the Bahamas, shipping the sand back to Miami. But it had the same environment-destroying impact in the island and when this was reported on the news and even prompted a BBC investigation, he was forced to shut it down, too (p.32).

Then Trebeaux took some bad advice from a contact who told him he could use sand from a ‘burrow pit’ (something I think we would call a gravel pit) on the edge of the Everglades. This Trebeaux proceeds to excavate and ship to the beach behind the Royal Pyrenees hotel. But the sand from this source turns out to be not only hard and sharp but to contain recycled asphalt and even broken glass! Soon after it is laid, tourists start cutting themselves to shreds and trade to the hotel plummets.

And this is where the mob comes in because the Royal Pyrenees hotel is owned by them and managed by their man, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola. This is why Big Noogie had hired Zeto to kidnap Trebeaux. But Zeto screws up and kidnaps Lane, who quickly makes it clear he’s the wrong guy. Nonetheless, Zeto and Merry tie and gag Lane while they ponder what to do with him, Zeto casually weighing the pros and cons of killing him.

Long story short, after failing to bump Len off on a boat, Zeto reluctantly agrees to take him along with them when they have another go at bumping and grabbing the actual Martin Trebeaux the next day and, during the confusion, Lane manages to wriggle out the window of the car he’s being held in and run off, eventually finding a payphone and calling his boss in LA.

Buck’s disastrous gig

Now the important thing about Coolman being mistakenly kidnapped is that he provides a vital psychological support to his TV star Buck Nance when the latter does his ‘gigs’. Buck has a guitarist strumming along in the background but it is Lane’s reassuring presence just offstage that gets him through the gigs, giving him confidence beforehand and prompting him if he dries, as he tells good ole boy stories and jokes to his redneck audience.

So Buck turns up for his ‘gig’ at a bar called the Parched Pirate on Duvall Street in Key West and, without either the guitar player (whose absence is unexplained) or Lane (who we have seen being kidnapped en route to the gig) Buck’s set goes disastrously awry. Instead of the usual stories he panics, forgets his script and ad libs some off colour jokes from Wisconsin about blacks and then about gays. This turns out to be a terrible idea because the Parched Pirate is actually a gay hangout.

The upshot is there’s a riot, Buck is grabbed, beaten up, has his shirt ripped off and his long grey beard forcibly chopped off with scissors before he can flee for his life, ducking through a maze of back alleys and eventually hiding out in the tangled branches of a huge banyan tree where he stays, thoroughly razzled, for the entire night.

During the ruckus he has lost his wallet and his mobile phone and he looks like crap. He has been reduced to bum status.

Enter Yancy

Believe it or not, this is where Yancy comes in, because next day he’s called to a restaurant run by Irv Clipowski (‘a long-distance runner with a goatee which he dyed goosewhite’), which generally has good hygiene standards, but where they’ve found hanks of grey hair in the quinoa vat. The hair has apparently been chucked there overnight and the reader quickly realises it’s the remnants of Buck Nance’s beard, forcibly cut off him by an enraged crowd and chucked through an open window.

Yancy clears up the sample of rogue hair cuttings and orders the restaurant owners to do a thorough deep clean of their kitchen.

As it happens, later that day, Rogelio Burton, a friend of Yancy’s who’s still a detective on the Monroe police force, mentions that a big fuss has kicked off about this TV star, Buck Nance, who’s gone missing and when, that evening, Yancey watches a few old episodes of Bayou Brethren out of boredom, he suddenly realises the grey hair in the quinoa looks identical with Buck Nance’s grey beard in the TV show. Huh. A clue!

Now, Yancy is bored with his job and pissed off because his long-term girlfriend, smart Dr Rosa Campesino, formerly of the Miami morgue (her job when he met her), now working in a hospital emergency room, has abruptly announced that she’s going to Europe, to Norway, without him. It feels like a snub and they part at the airport on bad terms. At a loose end, on impulse, Yancy decides, what the hell, he’ll have a go at tracking down this missing TV star.

Fallout from Buck’s bad gig

Meanwhile, the president of Platinum Artists Management, John David Ampergrodt, known as Amp, is going nuts because Nance’s homophobic, racist jokes were recorded by some of his audience and immediately posted on YouTube. Not only that, but Buck’s unhinged girlfriend, Miracle, becomes convinced that the missing Buck has run off with some other woman and so hacks into the Bayou Brethren‘s Facebook page, adding a photo of Osama bin Laden and making it look like Buck is jokily comparing his own beard with the famous terrorist’s.

So Amp finds himself in the midst of a major PR disaster, when Zeto lets Lane rings up desperately begging for a ransom to be paid so that mad Zeto doesn’t waste him (while Zeto and Merry are still holding him). You can see why Amp doesn’t immediately believe Lane or grasp the seriousness of the situation. 12 hours later Lane rings from a roadside phone box to say he’s managed, as we’ve seen, to free himself from his kidnappers but, again, Amp is too distracted by the crisis in hand to take him seriously.

(There’s a running thread that Lane has a wife, Rachel, who is planning to divorce him and is currently ‘revenge fucking’ her way through all the men in Los Angeles, notably Lane’s boss John David Ampergrodt, who routinely meets her at the Wilshire Hotel for quick cunnilingus and boning sessions [p.144]. We are given graphic descriptions of comic moments when Amp has his head rammed firmly between Rachel’s parted thighs and is slurping away when his phone goes off with an important business call. The hard life of a Hollywood agent, eh. Lane has a divorce lawyer working for him and trying to discredit Rachel. The lawyer’s name is Smegg [p.278].)

Pause for breath

So: what’s going to happen to Martin Trebeaux, who by now Zeto and Merry have successfully kidnapped? Where’s Buck Nance hiding out and what’s going to happen to him, now beaten up, penniless and beardless? Will Yancy manage to find Buck or will he get dragged into the whole Zeto-Merry-Trebeaux storyline? Will there be a happy resolution to Yancy and Rosa Campesino’s relationship, which seems to have fallen on hard times? Stay tuned, folks.

Main plot developments

There are so many complicated plot ramifications and complexifications it’s hard to keep track. Here are the highlights:

Zeto electrocutes himself trying to adjust the plug on the cable to an electric car he’s stolen, so he’s out of the story quite early on.

Trebeaux is handed over to Big Noogie who, with a hardass assistant (‘the man with the ivory toothpick’), attaches surgical clamps to Trebeaux’s ‘nutsack’ (scrotum) and then dangles him from a local railway bridge until Trebeaux admits the sand he rebeached the Grand Pyrenees with was sub-standard and promises to do everything in his power to fix it.

Merry astonishes Lane by bumping into Lane a few days after he escaped from her and Zeto and calmly asking if she can move into his motel room with him. Merry is a splendid fictional creation, a constant fount of unexpected and unpredictable behaviour. She refuses to conform to any conventions, kidnapping someone one minute then wanting to be their friend. She concocts extravagant and hilarious lies at the drop of a hat. After a brief period with Lane she then arrives on Yancy’s doorstep (see below). There’s a funny piece of dialogue where she explains to Yancy that she doesn’t regard herself as a criminal at all, but more of a performance artist (p.93).

Brock and Deb I need to mention Yancy’s neighbours. After he drove away the property developer who was trying to build on the lot adjacent to his house in the previous novel, the lot has now been purchased by a shyster lawyer, Brock Richardson, and his good-looking spoiled fiancée, Debbie. As with the previous owner, Yancy embarks on a campaign to drive them away, which includes drunkenly firing his rifle at beer bottles he lobs into the air close to the border fence when Brock and Deb are around. In a later gag he gets a buddy of his that he plays poker with to pretend to be a state archaeologist and ‘discover’ ancient teeth on the site, which he claims must have belonged to the Calusa native Americans who occupied this land thousands of years ago. The fake archaeologist immediately declares that all building works will have to be suspended while the site is fully excavated, much to Brock’s fury (p.177).

Pitrolux Worth mentioning that one of the book’s dozen or so storylines focuses on Brock’s role as the lawyer for a series of class actions he’s managing against a new wonder-product named ‘Pitrolux’. This is a combination underarm deoderant which also cures erectile dysfunction i.e. gives men boners which last for hours. Despite what he knows about its ill effects, Brock himself starts taking Pitrolux and his rock-hard, everlasting erections rekindle his love life with Debs, until he starts to suffer from the same side effects as all his clients, namely a) the erections won’t go away, last for hours and become really painful, and b) the growth of unsightly skin tags or polyps in the shape of tiny penises in his armpit, which Debs discovers and freak her out.

The diamond ring A simple incident occurs early on which turns out to become central to the plot. Yancy spies Deb poking around in the as-yet-unbuilt-on plot. He jumps over the fence and aggressively questions her. Turns out she has lost the massive engagement ring Brock gave her which cost him $200,000. She’s pissed off because it was slightly too big for her finger, Brock having originally bought it for an earlier, tubbier fiancée. Yancy pretends to help until Debs gets fed up and leaves, at which point Yancy picks it up from where it was lying concealed in long grass.

Yancy stores the monster ring in a tub of hummus in his fridge and what happens is, through various coincidences, a series of bad guys hear about the missing ring and come to pay Yancy visits. Thus, at one point Trebeaux and Richardson meet by complete accident in a bar and both mouth off about their woes. But when Richardson mentions the missing $200,000 ring, and that he thinks Yancy has stolen it, Trebeaux passes the news along to Big Noogie in a bid to impress his new mafioso boss.

Big Noogie immediately decides the ring will be just perfect for his son to give to his fiancée, and sends a couple of hard men round to Yancy’s to intimidate or, if necessary, torture its whereabouts out of him. They only have to start slashing up Yancy’s sofa before Yancy gives in and hands it over.

Merry moves in By this point half a dozen other things have happened. For a start, when Lane moves out of his motel into a smarter hotel, Merry has nowhere to stay and so turns up on Yancy’s doortstep. To his own surprise he takes a keen liking to her, for her independent, free-spirited sassiness. She’s great fun, an outrageous liar and flirt and fantasist. Some of her extended riffs are very funny and help to make this, at least in the first half, arguably Hiaasen’s funniest novel (for example, page 166).

‘You don’t know what to do with me, do you? I love that!’ (p.257)

There’s also broad comedy when Yancy’s estranged girlfriend, Dr Campesino, phones from Oslo and every time it seems, by bad luck, to be Merry who answers the phone. One time by bursting into the bathroom where Yancy is having a shower so that she answers the call from Rosa but then hands it over to an obviously naked Yancy (p.148). Yancy finds this (understandably) difficult to explain and Rosa for her part announces that she wants to stay in Norway.

Comedic though the shape of this storyline is, it contains a very serious social point. Rosa has worked all her life in either the Miami morgue or Miami emergency ward and she’s had enough. She’s snapped. She’s had a sort of breakdown. She just can’t face the sound of endless police sirens from morning to night, and she can’t face any more the task of patching up children – children – with extensive gunshot wounds. On one of their long, difficult calls Rosa tells Yancy how many murders there have been in Oslo that year. The answer: one. Two farmers got into a drunken fight and one hit the other with a shovel a bit harder than he meant to. Guns are illegal in Norway, so there is no gun crime, compared to:

a place as ethnically diverse and gun crazy as Florida. (p.298)

It’s a serious point about the stupidity of America’s gun laws and its out-of-control epidemic of violence and I read it on the same day there was a mass shooting in the very same Miami Rosa is talking about, Hiaasen’s Miami.

‘These people [the Norwegians] have evolved in a positive direction,’ Rosa said. ‘Americans are heading the other direction.’ (p.377)

Anyway, the fact that Merry seems to have moved in with him explains why she is present when Big Noogie’s goons arrive and why she helps to persuade Yancy to give in and hand over the diamond. Mind you, Yancy is easily persuaded because he is, at the time, lying on his sofa recovering from a bad knife wound to the gut. Knife wound?

Yes, because there is an entirely separate plotline which only really gets going in the middle of the book but then comes to dominate it. This rotates around a redneck cretin named Benjamin ‘Blister’ Krill who is a fanatical fan of the Bayou Brethren, so fanatical that he has a massive tattoo inked across his shoulders reading HAIL CAPTAIN COCK.

When Buck climbs down from the banyan tree the morning after the riot in the bar he sets about shoplifting a new shirt and hat and shades etc. But Blister Krill recognises his hero and tries to engage him in conversation. When Buck repeatedly rebuffs him (p.200), idiot Blister gets furious, whips out his knife and frogmarches Buck through the tourist crowds in Key West, out to the dock and onto a little put-put boat which he drives out to a knackered old boat he owns, a cabin cruiser named Wet Nurse. Here he handcuffs Buck to a bunk in the cabin until he learns some manners.

From this point onwards Blister becomes a sort of daemon ex machina, the wild card driving the plot. Things escalate when Blister, inspired by the kind of racist language Buck used at his ill-fated gig and which has triggered an outpouring of redneck bigotry across the internet, spots a foreign-looking guy on the tacky touristy Conch Train which weaves through Old Key West, goes up to him and starts yelling Islamophobic abuse.

This poor man, Abdul-Halim Shamoon, is from New York where he has a family and children and runs a harmless electronics retail shop (p.126). He’s loaded up on tacky souvenirs which he’s planning to take home for the kids when a rough redneck confronts him and starts spitting insults in his face. So Shamoon tries to get off the train while it’s still moving but falls awkwardly onto a tacky porcelain gewgaw he’s bought which pierces his sternum and punctures his aorta. There and then he bleeds to death all over his tropical tourist shirt and souvenir knick-knacks. Blister runs off into the crowd.

Hiaasen’s early novels feature some outrageously grotesquely violent incidents, such as the hitman who gets a dead pitbull attached to his arm in Double Whammy and the angry New Yorker who crucifies a crooked property developer to a satellite dish in Stormy Weather. Later novels try but, I think, generally fail to match the first fine careless insanity of these early incidents. Having Shamoon fall on some tourist gewgaws and bleed to death isn’t outrageous enough to be blackly funny. Instead it feels genuinely tragic and sad.

Anyway, Blister runs off, but some bystanders provide identification of sorts and the ‘murder’ of Shamoom gets mixed up with the ongoing disappearance of TV star Buck Nance in a whole load of complicated and twisted ways.

Yancy, bored and hoping to impress his ex-boss by solving the crime, picks up various clues which lead him to Blister in his crappy apartment, where he’s barely begun questioning him (with absolutely no authority; he is no longer a detective and the head of Monroe’s Police force has emphatically told him to stop interfering) when Blister takes a ‘spazzy’ swipe at him with a knife, not stabbing him but raking a cut across his stomach.

Luckily enough Yancy was accompanied by Merry, who manhandled him out the apartment, into their car and ran all the red lights to get home to a hospital ER in 6 minutes.

Being the tough guy hero of a thriller / obstinate failed cop and stoner (take your pick) Yancy refuses to stay in hospital overnight after he’s been stitched up, and insists on going home where he can lie on his own sofa and get pleasantly stoned while Merry tends to him. Which is precisely the moment Big Noogie’s hoods choose to arrive and threaten to turn over his house till they find the $200,000 engagement ring.

Complicated, isn’t it? There’s a lot more. Blister then kidnaps Lane Coolman as well as Buck and ends up with both of them handcuffed to bunks in the cabin of his rancid old motor yacht. The only way the two men can persuade Blister to let them go is with a plan which goes beyond any bounds of sanity or probability: the three concoct the idea that Blister will join the cast of Bayou Brethren as Buck’s long lost brother. It’s Blister’s idea, and he comes up with a long and extravagant backstory to justify his sudden appearance in the show. Lane is one tough, cynical agent and, despite having been kidnapped and handcuffed to a bunk in a rancid old boat, he can actually see Blister’s plot twist working.

The result is that Blister releases them from their handcuffs, takes them back to the mainland, Lane calls Amp at the agency’s office in Los Angeles, pitches the story and, to the reader’s increasing disbelief, Amp flies out to meet the (by now genuinely psychopathic and dangerous) Blister in person.

This storyline now spins way out of control leading to a scene where Blister is taken for a spin in Amp’s private jet along with his common law wife, Mona, and Lane and Buck as they drink champagne and discuss the finer points of the contract he’s going to be signed to. All is going well until Amp’s big black bodyguard, Prawney, makes a grab for Blister’s Glock semi-automatic which he’s been carrying round for the past hundred pages. The gun goes off, shooting Prawney through the cheeks and in the chest. Amp orders the pilot to turn the plane round and land back in Key West. Well, as business meetings go, that wasn’t a great success.

Trebeaux and Juvenile

Now he’s come all this way south to sort out the sand situation, Big Noogie likes it in Key West. After Trebeaux had been hung off the bridge and made the wise decision to co-operate fully with the mob, he’d been flown to New York to meet the heads of the Calzone family who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse i.e. took over his company wholesale (p.139). On the way Trebeaux had introduced Noogie to a scam he’d never heard of before, which was to get hold of a dog and dress it in a hazard jacket and pretend to be disabled so as to blag a better seat on the plane. Americans appear to call this a ‘service dog’ (p.410). When they fly back to Key West together, Trebeaux wants nothing more to do with the dog and the Noogie finds himself looking after it and slowly getting to like going for regular walks through the tourist crowds of Old Key West and along the beach. Yes, life here is nice and relaxing.

Anyway, Trebeaux is still orientating himself in his dangerous new situation vis-a-vis the mafia, and is unpacking in his hotel room when there’s a knock on the door and Big Noogie’s mistress, a big florid flake nicknamed Juveline (a name she acquired when a New York cop couldn’t spell ‘juvenile’ on her arrest sheet) walks into his room and asks whether he fancies a mind-blowing fuck. Trebeaux says yes and they go for it. Soon she has become his mistress, two-timing the Big Noogie.

Trebeaux knows this is a very bad idea but is turned on by the sheer outrageousness of the situation and they keep having regular sex, Juveline explaining that Big Noogie is such a big, fat, middle-aged guy that he isn’t that interested in it. Also, Noogie doesn’t get jealous if she disappears for days on end to her relatives’ houses or shopping and such, which gives her plenty of opportunity to be unfaithful.

This plotline reaches a peak when Trebeaux tries to pull a scam on the Big Noogie, bullshitting that he has heavyweight connections in Havana Cuba who will do a deal to supply world-class pink sand from Cuban beaches to make the Royal Pyrenees beach the envy of Florida. Unwisely, Trebeaux lets Juveline talk him into taking her on the 2-day jaunt to Havana.

Only trouble is that Juveline talks in her sleep and one night cries out ‘Harder, Marty, harder’, much to the surprise of Big Noogie lying next to her, who instantly realises what’s going on (p.389). Thus, when Trebeaux has landed and made himself at home in Havana, and goes to meet Juveline off a later flight, it is not Juveline he sees walking through passport control but the same hardman who applied the surgical clamps to his nutsack and helped dangle him off the bridge. Ah. Oh. Bad. In fact Trebeaux’s body is discovered a few days later, buried on a beach. So, that’s the end of him, then.

Funny

Razor Girls may well be Hiaasen’s funniest novel, meaning the one which made me laugh out loud the most. For two reasons: Yancy develops a really buddy-buddy routine with fellow detective Rogelio, which leads to lots of snappy repartee:

YANCY: ‘The human bloodhound is what they call me.’
ROGERIO: ‘A pain in the sphincter is what they call you.’ (p.87)

OK, so it’s not Oscar Wilde, but in the context of a fast-moving, American crime comedy caper, and in the context of the sustained backchat between the pair, it’s good, it works.

But the main reason is for the indefatigably unpredictable behaviour of fantasist and survivor Merry Mansfield. Almost everything she says and does is wonderfully confident, bluff and canny. Unquenchably amoral. At several points Yancy realises it would be wise to tell her to move out and make a break with her, but she’s just so much fun to have around.

It was hard to picture an even-keeled relationship with a person who took her last name from a  dead movie star and and crashed automobiles half-naked for a living. (p.284)

Men

Once again, as in many previous Hiaasen novels, the entire male sex comes in for sustained criticism, yet again, for their pitiful addiction to sex. Flash most men some boob or a whiff of your panties and they turn into drooling slaves. Most of this comes from the mouth if Merry, inventor of the shaving pubes scam, who has the lowest possible opinion of pathetic men.

  • Merry said, ‘Men. I swear.’ (p.44)
  • ‘Men are so pitiful.’ (p.93)
  • ‘his poor little pecker…’ (p.119)
  • ‘You men.’ (p.134)
  • He said, ‘Yeah, I know. Us men, we’re pitiful.’ ‘Totally, Andrew.’ (p.190)
  • ‘Men, I swear.’ (p.285)
  • She had had ‘a lifetime of being disappointed by men.’ (p.360)
  • ‘Men are the worst.’ (p.364)
  • ‘Men are so freakin’ predictable.’ (p.415)

One touch on the pecker and men become ‘immune to rational thought’ (p.388). I wonder if Hiaasen made the same kind of sustained criticism of women or Jews or blacks or Muslims, whether his liberal readers would take it all in good spirit and laughingly accept the sustained barrage of negative stereotypes.

American slang

Hiaasen’s novels are notable not only for their very dense plots, overflowing with colourful characters and garish incidents, but for the aggressive ‘attitude’ of the narrator himself, who freely uses street slang and swearwords to describe his characters and their doings, and liberally sprinkles the text with those handy terms for things and actions which Americans just seem to have and we Brits don’t. I found this novel particularly rich in new terminology, in fact I became addicted to collecting them.

  • app = short for appetiser. ‘His calamari app.’
  • baggie = a brand of plastic bag, Yancy uses them for stashing mank he finds on his restaurant inspections, such as rodent ‘scat’
  • baked = stoned
  • to ball = to fuck cf. to bone. ‘Is she still balling that dickface Drucker?’ (p.370)
  • to bang = to fuck, cf, to ball, to bone. ‘Don’t bang a stranger.’ (p.404)
  • bank = big money. ‘You saved the agency some serious bank.’ (p.63)
  • a beat-down = a severe beating. ‘So I can cancel your beat-down?’ (p.414)
  • berserk-o = adjective meaning wild, crazy. ‘The beserk-o side of the place [Miami] was basically all you saw, if you were a cop or a coroner.’ (p.190)
  • to bitch someone out = nag someone, generally a woman bitching out a man (p.252)
  • blow smoke = to bullshit, make something up. ‘… that didn’t mean Trebeaux wasn’t blowing smoke.’ (p.182)
  • to bone = to fuck
  • bonehead = ‘A stubborn, thickheaded and determined person that doesn’t think things through before acting upon them’
  • boner = erection (p.374)
  • to brace = to meet, to confront (p.393)
  • a bumblefuck = insult
  • Bumfuck = generic term for inconsequential settlement in the middle of nowhere, as in Bumfuck Wisconsin or any of the other anonymous mid-Western states.
  • a bump and grab = a type of criminal scam: one crim bumps their car into the back of the victims car; when the victim stops, they’re hijacked / kidnapped
  • to bus tables = to be a waiter
  • buy the farm = to die. ‘… a biker who’d bought the farm at Mile Marker 19.’ (p.304)
  • buzzed = adjective meaning ‘stoned’
  • to can = to fire. ‘No wonder the sheriff canned your ass.’ (p.188)
  • chunk-muffin  = fat person (p.36)
  • cockhead = variation on dickhead, an idiot, an annoying or vexatious person (p.367)
  • cold one = a beer (p.306)
  • cooch = pussy, fanny, vulva. ‘…shaving cream all over her cooch…’ (p.260)
  • to crack the blinds = of closed blinds, to prise them apart to spy through them (p.327)
  • courtesy fuck = a guy buys a woman dinner, chocolates etc, she owes him a courtesy fuck
  • cracker = term of contempt for poor whites, particularly of Georgia and Florida, dating back to the American Revolution, and derives from the cracked corn which was their staple diet
  • to dick around = to waste time (p.309)
  • dickface = loser, idiot (p.370)
  • dickweed = an asshole or idiot so pernicious they are like a weed (p.384)
  • dirtbag = person who is committed to an alternative lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other social norms i.e. washing
  • to do = have sex with. ‘I’d do her.’
  • Dogpatch = name of a fictional poor rural community in the U.S., especially in the South, whose inhabitants are unsophisticated and have little education. Hence its use as an adjective: ‘A Dogpatch moniker like Clee Roy should have stuck in his head.’ (p.188)
  • a doobie or doob = a joint, cannabis cigarette (p.328)
  • dopp kit = small bag made for transporting toiletries in a convenient and portable manner
  • douche, short for douche bag = ‘a dick, an asshole, a jerk, whose crass behaviour has led them to be compared to a cleansing product for vaginas.’
  • a dust bunny = ball of dust and fluff (p.326)
  • dweeb = abbreviation of ‘dick with eyebrows’, implying the person is a walking penis
  • flake = an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through (p.311)
  • four-top = table for four in a diner
  • to frog = to punch someone in the upper arm or chest with the middle knuckle partially extended to inflict a sharp concentrated blow
  • fry cartons = generic name for the kind of flimsy, grease-stained cardboard cartons you get takeaway fast food in
  • fuckwhistle = idiot, moron, one who lacks the most basic common sense to make correct decisions
  • fuckweasel = person who behaves in a sneaky manner to create favourable circumstances for themselves at the expense of others
  • gank = to steal. ‘I think the asshole who lives next door might’ve ganked it.’ (p.181)
  • gas up = fill a car with petrol (p.346)
  • goatfuck = a monumental screwup. (p.410)
  • goober = term of affection for a lovable, silly, lighthearted person: ‘…a crew from ET [was] interviewing some sunburned goober’ (p.97)
  • googan = a person wearing trendy sports clothing that is completely clueless in the ways of fishing
  • goomah = a mafioso’s mistress
  • grab-ass = the act of wrestling or chasing another person with the intention to touch or squeeze that person’s butt
  • a grow house = a room or rooms or larger space where marijuana plants are grown (p.245)
  • a hardass = someone who takes no shit off anyone, someone who expects to get their own way and won’t take no for an answer; dominating (p.364)
  • hard chargers = party animals. ‘Rogelio didn’t screw around on his wife, never stayed out late with the hard chargers.’ (p.82)
  • hardcore = adjective meaning serious, intense, relentless. ‘This judge is hardcore.’ (p.370)
  • honcho = a person in charge of some group or function. ‘The network honchos…’ (p.247)
  • horn, on the = on the phone
  • horndog = a guy or girl that is always horny. ‘He couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was a hopelessly shallow horndog.’ (p.284)
  • iced = adjective meaning killed or completed, depending on context. ‘I’ll have [the contract] iced by the next time we walk.’ (p.238)
  • an innie = belly buttons come in two shapes, innies and outies
  • to jack = ​jack something or somebody (for something) to steal something from somebody, especially something small or of low value (p.322)
  • jackoff = a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person
  • jag = ‘To “be on a jag” or “go on a jag” means to be completely unrestrained, whether you’re on a drinking jag or a crying jag.’
  • jazzed = expression of extreme happiness. ‘I am totally jazzed to hear your voice.’ (p.238)
  • jewels = penis and testicles. ‘I mean she’ll kill me, cut off my fuckin’ jewels and kill me all over again.’ (p.90)
  • jizz = semen (p.268)
  • Johnson = penis (p.374)
  • junk = cock and balls. ‘Next she made him dunk his junk in a bucket of ice cubes…’ (p.287)
  • landing zone = woman’s genitals (p.331)
  • look fly = look smart, well presented (p.359)
  • mash = press hard. ‘He mashed the Lobby button half a dozen times…’ (p.309)
  • meathead = overmuscular man, too much time at the gym, can’t string a sentence together (p.292)
  • meat hog = muscle i.e. goons i.e. hired enforcers (p.322)
  • mick = Irish (noun or adjective) (p.373)
  • mo-fo = adjective, short for ‘motherfucking’, suggesting ‘big’ (p.180)
  • a mope = a person of any race or culture who presents themselves as uneducated and possibly criminal either by behaviour or clothes
  • a mouthbreather = a retard: someone so stupid they never learned to breathe through their nose
  • nooner = a sex session during a lunch break or around noon; made famous by Al Bundy of ‘Married with Children’. ‘She promised him that she was done with payback nooners at the Wlshire.’ (p.409)
  • nosebleed heels = heels so high your head is in the upper atmosphere, hence the nosebleed
  • a numbnut = someone who is a constant source of trouble, an individual who screws up, or constant makes mistakes
  • nut sack = scrotum; male characters in Hiaasen novels are always getting something bad happen to their nut sacks, in this novel Trebeaux has some surgical clamps (hemostats) attached to his balls
  • nuts = testicles
  • on the lam = on the run, very old slang
  • a peckerwood = used by Afro-Americans to describe a rural white southerner, usually poor, undereducated or otherwise ignorant and bigoted (p.381)
  • to peel out = to drive or go away. ‘Yancy grinned at the sight of the Taurus peeling out.’ (p.190)
  • to peel rubber = to accelerate an automobile very rapidly (p.364)
  • piece = gun (p.370)
  • poon = woman’s genitals. Short for ‘poontang‘, ditto (p.308)
  • a pop tab = the flip top on drink cans
  • to pop a tent = to have an erection that shows through your trousers, or erects a bedsheet
  • pussy hound = ‘a dude who’s main goal in life is balling ladies.’
  • rearview, to put someone in your rearview = get over someone, move on (p.302)
  • rebar = reinforcing steel used as rods in concrete.
  • revenge fuck = joins mercy fuck, courtesy fuck and sportfucking as categories of fuck. ‘Rachel was the undoubted queen of the revenge fuck in a town with many contenders for the title.’ (p.42)
  • the root prong = of a tooth (p.178)
  • salvor = ‘a person engaged in salvage of a ship or items lost at sea’
  • sawbuck = $10
  • scat = poo; ‘rodent scat’ (p.84)
  • schlep = noun: a long and tiresome journey; verb: to make a long and tiresome journey. Yiddish (p.373)
  • to screak = to make a harsh shrill noise : screech
  • shit-bird = a completely useless individual who is unaware of their own complete uselessness
  • shit-heel = adjective. ‘…his shit-heel brothers…’ (p.221)
  • shitkicker = insult
  • shitstick = insult
  • shitsucker = insult
  • shitweasel = person who is sly, sneaky, and opportunistic; someone who is looking to slip their way into a shitty situation and make it even shittier
  • a shucker = someone who shucks oysters, clams, corn, walnuts etc out of their shells
  • sick = adjective meaning really good, cool or very impressive
  • a slim jim = a tool used to open doors on cars, by ‘pulling up’ the lock within the door, hence the verb, to slim jim a car. ‘… content in mid-life to be slim-jimming cars…’ (p.275)
  • slut puppy = person who uses their adorable looks to attract a partner or partners for a casual sexual encounter
  • to snitch out = to betray. ‘A million bucks says you wouldn’t never snitch out your wife.’ (p.358)
  • to spazz out = sudden, fast movement(s); to go mental (p.373)
  • spazzy = adjective meaning clumsy or inept, with an overtone of demented or mad. ‘Benny Krill had made one spazzy swing with the blade…’ (p.192)
  • to stare down = verb: to look fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away
  • a stare-down = noun: the act of looking fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away (p.386)
  • stoner = someone who regularly smokes marijuana: there are many different types of stoner
  • swag = merchandise. ‘He promised to donate a truckload of Brethren swag to an auction benefiting the local kids’ baseball league…’ (p.248).
  • tanked = stoned
  • tank suit = a woman’s one-piece swimsuit with high-cut legs. Merry wears one (p.300)
  • a thundercunt = that much more cunty than an ordinary cunt. ‘She’s a major thundercunt.’ (p.62)
  • toot = to snort, generally cocaine (p.329)
  • to tune up = to give someone an attitude adjustment by beating their ass. ‘… the man who’d just tuned up Rick and Rod…’ (p.275)
  • a tweaker = a methamphetamine addict; derives from ‘tweak’ which is a slang name for methamphetamine’. ‘Mr Nance isn’t just some homeless tweaker.’ (p.47)
  • unspooled = adjective meaning unhinged, bonkers
  • weed = marijuana aka grass
  • a whack job = a nutcase, a lunatic
  • to whale at something = to hit something forcefully and repeatedly
  • to whorehop = to go from one (loose) woman to another, regardless of consequences (p.61)
  • to wig out = ‘to suddenly become unnecessarily worried, anxious, upset, or paranoid most often while under the influence of an intoxicating substance, especially marijuana’
  • wild-ass = adjective meaning crazy. ‘The van driver figured out they were being tailed, and made a wild-ass turn off Flagler Avenue.’ (p.362)
  • wood = an erect penis; thus ‘to get wood’, ‘to have wood’. Brock Richardson: ‘Never waste good wood.’ (p.288)

Englishisms

In among the blizzard of Americanisms I was struck by a handful of times Hiaasen uses what I think of as very English terms, such as nitwit (p.361) and thick (p.215). I wonder whether he was deliberately trying to include as much novel slang as possible in this book i.e. it has a conscious philological interest over and above the storyline.

Once again I note that the woman riding cowboy style is Hiaasen’s (fictional) sexual position of choice, Merry riding Yancy (p.254) just as Dr Rosa Campasino rode him on the morgue dissection table and, later, in his bath. Appropriate for the general ‘girls on top, men are pitiful’ theme of so many of his novels.

Handy phrases

  • Sonny Summers wasn’t the sharpest tack on the corkboard. (p.47)
  • ‘Not my circus, not my monkey.’ (p.185)

Credit

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2016. All references are to the 2019 Vintage Crime 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)

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen (2013)

Sonny Summers looked up, blinking like a toad in a puddle of piss.
(Bad Monkey, page 186)

Hiaasen’s thirteenth novel opens with the usual daunting barrage of information about a challengingly large number of characters and their often complex and detailed backstories, all quickly introduced in the first 40 or 50 pages, before the usual, ever-escalating sequence of farcical, satirical and often very violent complications kicks in.

The setup

Andrew Yancy (backstory p.33) is a 6-foot-two, middle-aged cop, working for small time Monroe County which, when you look it up, is a small jurisdiction far out at the westernmost point of the Florida Keys and whose county seat is Key West.

Yancy used to work up in glamorous Miami but was forced to take retirement after he drunkenly exposed the crooked machinations of a corrupt fellow cop, Sergeant Johnny Mendez, who was running a scam whereby he backdated arrests for crimes for which rewards had been posted, in order to crookedly claim the rewards. Partly because of the way Yancy denounced him (in a drunk phone call from a bar), partly because of cop solidarity, Mendez was exonerated and it was Yancy who was forced to resign (p.16). So although he’s a cop, he’s also the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sort of.

Yancy is not a clean-cut hero, he is a dope-smoking hard case. His current girlfriend is Bonnie Witt, who’s still married to her husband of 14 years, Dr Clifford Witt. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Yancy has recently seriously assaulted Clifford. Yancy was cleaning his car with one of those hand-held mini-hoovers, on a public street, when Clifford and Bonnie happened to walk by and Yancy clearly heard Clifford insulting and cussing Bonnie. Being a headstrong, impulsive guy, Yancy leapt out of his car and chased a screaming Clifford down the street, till he tackled him to the ground, tore down his trousers, and shoved the hoover attachment up his ass. Yes. It’s played for laughs, but quite violent laughs.

Clifford was Yancy’s dermatologist, that’s how he got to meet and seduce Bonnie. Now Clifford is threatening to take Yancy to court and Bonnie wants Yancy to cut one of those plea bargain deals which you always get in American cop TV shows and movies. The local state attorney is Billy Dickinson who wants to avoid a scandal. Yancy’s attorney at the public defender’s office is called Montenegro.

When a severed arm is hauled out the sea off Key West by two honeymooners from Wisconsin, James and Louisa Mayberry, who are on Captain Keith Fitzpatrick‘s hireboat, the arm is handed over to the local police force which is run by the sheriff of Monroe County, a none-too-bright good old boy named Sonny Summers.

Summers is in thrall to the Florida Keys tourist industry and the last thing he wants is publicity about severed arms, so Summers tells one of his detectives, Rogelio Burton, to ring up his old pal, Yancy, and instruct him to take the arm (in an icebox) up to Miami and use his old contacts to persuade the authorities there that the murder happened off their beaches and so falls within their jurisdiction. The Monroe County forensic examiner, Dr Lee Rawlings has done an initial post mortem, but the boys up in Miami will do a better one.

So, with the hope it will get him back in Monroe’s good books, Yancy reluctantly drives the 90 minutes up Interstate One to Miami where he gets an assistant medical examiner, Dr Rosa Campesino, to examine the arm. She finds a small shark tooth in it but resolutely refuses to accept responsibility or notify the Miami police. Yancy is stuck with the arm and will have to take it back to Monroe County.

Taking advantage of being back on his old home turf, Yancy parks his car outside Johnny Mendez’s home for a bit, toying with hanging the severed arm from the rear view mirror of the creep who got him fired, but then thinks better of it, reluctantly turns and motors back to the Keys.

Here he keeps the arm on ice while he has Bonnie over, cooks for her and goes to bed where she gives more details about the plea bargain she wants to arrange for his assault case. They have sex. Afterwards she springs the surprise that she, Bonnie, is herself a fugitive from justice, her real name is Plover Chase, she was a schoolteacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she was accused of extorting sex from a 15-year-old (boy) pupil, Cody, in exchange for giving him A grades. She fled to Florida before her trial,  saw that Clifford’s medical practice was advertising for a secretary, she got the job and seduced him into marriage. Huh. Yancy had no idea.

Yancy’s lawyer tells him that his boss, the prosecutor and the sheriff have arranged a deal so Yancy goes to see his boss, Sonny, to find out what it is. Sonny tells him Dr Witt has agreed to drop all charges  so long as Yancy quits the police force – but it’s OK, because he, Sonny, has found Yancy a new job as… a restaurant inspector! To replace the previous county food inspector, Randolph Nilsson, who died of… food poisoning!! He is given a food inspector instructor, Tommy Lombardo (p.75). Yancy is not happy at all.

It will become a running joke that the most unhygienic restaurant Yancy has to inspect in his new job is called Stoney’s Crab Palace and run by a shifty, apologetic man named Brennan. There are recurrent scenes where Yancy visits and keeps on finding cockroaches in the kitchen and a rat in the freezer. When anyone exasperates him, Yancy always tells them to go eat at Stoney’s Crab Palace, and a bit later we hear, regular as clockwork, that they’re in hospital with food poisoning, ha ha.

It’s also humorous that doing the food inspection job quickly gives Yancy a phobia about eating out, or eating anything prepared by others, and it is a running gag that he loses weight throughout the book as a result.

Pause for thought

All that information – the names and interlocking relationships of 16 or 17 characters, plus snippets of plot and event – is conveyed in just the first 33 densely-packed pages (though I’ve added a few snippets we pick up later on).

  1. It’s a lot to process, and the rest of the narrative continues at the same level of fact packedness.
  2. Reflecting on this made me realise that maybe facts are what Hiaasen has instead of psychology. Hiaasen’s characters are sketched out with quick decisive strokes, but they have no depth. We learn a lot of facts about them but the more we learn, the more the details of their backstories read like corporate dossiers or police files. For example, we keep on learning more and more about Bonnie but she never really gels, as a character.

More people, more events, more information

The severed arm turns out to belong to one Nick Stripling, in his 40s, who had a criminal record for car crash insurance fraud. When, after a week or so, his wife turns up making enquiries, claiming she’s been away in Paris, the DNA from the arm matches the missing man’s DNA, so it’s a positive ID.

Yancy’s boss sends this widow, Eve Stripling, out to Yancy’s house to collect her husband’s severed arm (which Yancy has been keeping in a deep freeze). He hands it over, reasonably professional and polite etc, but as he investigates further, Yancy learns this dead guy, Nick Stripling, had most recently been making money in a Medicare scooter scam, crookedly getting hold of old and vulnerable people’s Medicare accounts, then making fake claims on them, and extracting money from Medicare for the alleged purchase of all kinds of medication and equipment, without the actual patients ever knowing anything about it. Later we discover he’s made over $11 million through this scam.

(Hiaasen has form with disability scams. Compare Stripling’s with the scams run by Mick Stranahan’s creep brother-in-law, Kipper Garth, who was injured in a Skin Tight but not as much as he pretends, and now makes a living sitting in a wheelchair doing TV ads wheedling money out of people disabled in crashes and accidents. Soon as the cameras are off, he stands up and walks round right as rain.)

Yancy attends Nick’s funeral and meets his estranged, sweary daughter Caitlin Cox (and husband Simon, ramrod straight ex-military). Caitlins doesn’t mince her words, furiously claiming her mother is a ‘cunt’ and killed her father. Well, that opens a whole new perspective on the case.

Neville, the Dragon Queen and Andros island

In a separate storyline, we meet Neville Stafford who is a poor old black dude, aged 64 (p.214) who lives on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. Neville has lived all his life in the family home on the beach, Green Beach, but now his estranged half-sister, who lives in faraway Canada, is selling it to some white guy named simply Christopher, who plans to build the usual complex of condominiums and leisure facilities, which he is going to name ‘The Curly Tail Lane Resort’.

Neville goes to visit the Dragon Queen, an impressively scrawny, dirty, smelly, scary drunk woman, to ask her to put a voodoo spell on this ‘Christopher’.

Neville has a pet capuchin monkey which he won at a dominoes game from a man who claims he appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Neville has renamed the monkey Driggs and has overfed him on fried food, a bad diet for any animal, making the monkey sick so all its hair has fallen out. It chatters and bites and poops freely. It is the bad monkey of the title. Later on, in a comic touch, it is given a full backstory, as full as any of the human characters gets, with a jokily thorough account of his showbiz forebears, his own biography and character (chapter 23).

Yancy starts an affair with Rosa

Back with Yancy and the main storyline, Bonnie announces that she is moving away because hubby Clifford wants to move north (he still has no idea his wife is having an affair with Yancy). She says goodbye to Yancy and disappears from his life. Weeks go by and Yancy misses her. He phones her a couple of times, and on one phone call she explains that her husband, Dr Cliff, has taken to masturbating while part hanging himself by his belt or with a plastic bag over his head, the latest sex fashion for autoerotic asphyxiation (p.170). Cliff doesn’t invite her to take part, so she’s feeling horny and unsatisfied. But she is hundreds of miles away.

Yancy rings up the dishy Miami pathologist, Dr Rosa Campasino, they meet for lunch and start an affair. On the second or third date they swap details of their ex-spouses, as much-divorced Americans do. Yancy was married to Celia who, after three years or so of marriage, wanted to move north but he didn’t want to leave Florida where he was born and raised, so that was the end of that. Dr Rosa was married to a guy called Daniel till she bought him surfing lessons which led to him having an illicit affair with a lissom 29-year-old paddleboard instructor and, she then discovers, several other women, too (p.130). American Marriage, an institution respected around the world.

The first mate is hit

One evening Yancy meets at a bar with Captain Fitzpatrick, the hireboat captain, to ask him questions about the fishing trip when the arm was hooked. In the same bar is a young drunk dude shouting and bragging with a bottle blonde on his arm. The captain tells Yancy it’s Charlie Phinney, until recently his first mate who, after the arm trip, abruptly quit his job, having come into some money. Suspicious.

No sooner have Charlie and his babe left the bar than shots ring out. Yancy runs outside to discover Charlie shot dead on the pavement, his blonde girlfriend in hysterics, and a scooter zooming off down the road. Upon questioning the girlfriend reveals she is called Madeline and works in a shop that sells very rude t-shirts, owned, she claims, by the Russian mafia, managed by a shifty dud named Prestov.

Over the next hundred pages Yancy becomes convinced that Eve Stripling is having an affair with another man, with the very same ‘Christopher’ who is building the new development on the beach on Andros, that she and her lover killed her husband, hacked off his arm, then paid Charlie to hook it to the fishing line of the honeymoon couple from the north. The whole thing was a scam to make the authorities think Nick died in a boat accident and was eaten up by sharks, so they’ll sign off on his death, forget about it, and his widow can cash her dead husband’s $2 million life insurance.

Long-running feud with a property developer

There’s another running gag, that a short irritable guy from New York, Evan Shook, has invested heavily in buying the plot of land next to Yancy’s house (in the little settlement of Big Pine) and is building a monster mansion there with a view to selling it to out-of-towners. The new mansion is way too large for the area (Shook has clearly bribed the authorities), blocks Yancy’s view of the sunset, and has obliterated stands of trees where sometimes, in the fresh dawn, Yancy used to see the distinctive Keys deer come shyly, nibbling trees or grass. Now the area has been de-natured, levelled and is a building site. Yancy loathes and hates the development and Shook.

It becomes a running gag that each time Shook arranges for a prospective buyer to come and look over the half-built property, Yancy arranges something gruesome to meet them.

  • First it’s the body of a big, fat, dead raccoon which he found dead on the highway and carefully places in the half-built living room. Yuk.
  • Then he pays the local pest guy, Miguel, to install a huge bee hive in one of the bedrooms, which the hapless developer upsets with the result that a cloud of furious bees chase him and the prospective buyers off the property.
  • Then it’s Yancy himself who holes up in one of the empty closets after being attacked, beaten and thrown into the nearby canal by a mystery attacker, an assault from which he only barely escapes with his life. When Shook and the latest potential buyers find him, dripping wet and half naked hiding in one of the closets the next morning, Yancy explains his sorry appearance by claiming to have been attacked by one of the packs of savage feral dogs which prowl the neighbourhood which, understandably, puts the buyers off.
  • A few days later and fully recovered, Yancy late one night rigs up a voodoo / Santería shrine in the half-built house, complete with bones and feathers and blood daubings (p.172). This successfully prevents most of the labourers, who are illegal migrants from the Caribbean, from entering the site the next morning.
  • Next Yancy tells Bonnie and her tubby lover Cody (when they turn up half way through the story) that they can camp out in the half-built house, to Shook’s predictable outrage when he discovers them squatting in his property (p.205). It becomes a very funny running feud and Shook’s ever-increasing outrage, anger and frustration with Yancy is very amusing.

By halfway through the book it’s pretty obvious that Eve Stripling did indeed conspire with the little-seen man named Christopher Grunion (we discover his full name on page 166) to murder her husband, and chop off the body to try and prove it was a sailing accident, and then paid hapless young Christopher to hook up the severed arm.

Dr O’Peele is whacked

‘They’ also bump off the drunkard doctor, Dr Gomez O’Peele, who had been connected with Stripling. O’Peele is found dead with a single bullet to the head with the gun in his hand and the cops categorise the latter as suicide, but Yancy had interviewed him just the day before and forced O’Peele to admit that he knew about Stripling’s Medicare fraud. At this point, Yancy thinks Christopher Grunion and Eve Stripling must have learned that Yancy had interviewed O’Peele and suspected that he’d given too much away, maybe even the fact that they’d had Stripling murdered: and that’s why he was bumped off, so he couldn’t be arrested, questioned by the police and so on. Yancy feels partly responsible.

Yancy is attacked

He’s got this far in his investigation, in between his day job of inspecting restaurants, and in between sexy encounters with new lover Dr Campasino, when someone attacks Yancy as he is innocently putting his bin out: whacks him with something heavy upside his head, drags him unconscious to the nearby canal and chucks him in. The cold water wakes Yancy who is savvy enough to pretend to sink to the bottom and then to swim, his lungs bursting, across to the mangroves on the other side of the canal and very carefully surface and not move. The killer surveys the dark water for a while, goes to search Yancy’s house, then departs. It’s after this incident that Yancy decides not to return to his house that night in case the attacker returns and instead holes up in Shook’s half-built mansion next door… where he is found next morning by Shook and his latest set of prospective buyers.

Bonnie returns, with boy friend

Yancy tries to persuade sheriff Summers to let him rejoin the police department as a detective and follow up the case. Summers refuses. Out of the blue Bonnie reappears. Bored of her autoasphyxiating husband she set out on a mission to find the teenage boy who she seduced at school, found him and even though he has matured from a handsome 15 year-old to a balding, stupid fatso, she hooks up with him and the pair have driven down to the Keys and expect Yancy to put them up! As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate already!

The Oklahoma detective

In fact Bonnie comes trailing trouble because a detective from the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation turns up, one John Wesley Weiderman, a comically strict, literal, unimaginative and dutiful copper, who is on the trail of the errant Plover Chase aka Bonnie due to her jumping bail all those years ago. Much fun is had with him, starting with Yancy jokingly recommending he have dinner at Stoney’s Crab Palace after which, predictably, he comes down with bad food poisoning, and for the rest of the novel he turns up like a bad penny, at inopportune moments.

Claspers and Egg

Back in the Bahamas we meet a new character, K.J. Claspers (p.202). He used to fly planes smuggling cocaine in from South America. Nowadays, he’s middle aged and flies charter planes around Florida and the Bahamas. At the moment he’s on a retainer from this Christopher Grunion and Eve Stripling, and their goon, the big black hired muscle christened Carter Ecclestone (p.320) but universally referred to as Egg (p.203). When, late one night, Neville climbs over the chain link fence protecting the building site where his family home used to be, Egg appears out of nowhere and badly beats him up.

In fact, to his amazement, Neville discovers that this big chunky bouncer is now shagging the scrawny scarey Dragon Queen. She has a mysterious ability to seduce men, even Egg doesn’t know why he’s with her, specially when she takes to riding around in an electric wheelchair, followed by a small cohort of moaning, swaying devotees. And then she successfully takes Neville’s monkey, the bad monkey of the title, away from him.

Pause for thought 2

This summary has only taken us up to about half way through the plot. In other words, about the same amount of event and character occurs in the second half as I’ve summarised so far, including the one Big Revelation which is central to the plot.

It’s far too much for me to attempt to summarise, but the comic strands – increasing mayhem caused by the increasingly unhinged Bonnie, the comic thread of poor Evan Shook’s half-built house being subjected to endless humiliations by Yancy, Neville’s terror at the Dragon Queen’s increasingly outlandish antics – are brilliantly juxtaposed with the Yancy’s serious investigation into Stripling’s murder, and the other murders which seem to have followed from it. Dr Campasino becomes an increasingly willing assistant and the novel climaxes when they both take a few days off work and fly to Andros to track down for themselves the mysterious ‘Christopher’ figure who seems to be at the centre of all the different plot strands.

It is then that the novel turns quite a lot darker, with the kind of savage and macabre violence which is Hiaasen’s trademark. In a nutshell, the bad guys kidnap Rosa who is being threatened with rape just before the good guys manage to track her down and rescue her. Meanwhile Yancy finds himself staring down the barrel of a sawn-off shotgun and being told he knows far too much to be allowed to live.

And the book reaches its climax just as a tropical hurricane hits the island where all the characters have assembled (although it must be said, the storm is a bit of a disappointment, it blows a few roofs off, knocks over electricity poles and scatters debris round the streets, but isn’t the devastating apocalypse which the reader was secretly hoping for).

For once I won’t summarise the sequence of events leading up to the Big Revelation, nor what the revelation reveals. I’ve given you enough information to guess, or you could read it for yourself.

Are these books thrillers?

Somewhere I’ve read that Hiaasen’s novels are categorised as thrillers, albeit comedy thrillers. I suppose that’s the least bad categorisation, but I think the reader rarely feels much sense of suspense or danger. There’s certainly little or no suspense concerning ‘whodunnit’. Both the ‘good’ guy and the ‘bad’ guys are identified very early on and we can be 100% sure that the good guy will survive and triumph (albeit after navigating some perils and getting beaten up or even shot) and that the bad guys will come to a gruesome and grotesque end.

I suppose Hiaasen’s novels have thriller elements (a crime and a detective and a few violent murders) but these seem secondary compared to the comic incidents, farcically complicated plots and continual stream of ironic reversals, pratfalls, twists and turns and misadventures. The reader reads on not so much to find out the nature of the crime – more often than not we watch the crimes taking place in real time and know exactly who did them – we read on to discover what wickedly grotesque turn of events Hiaasen can dish up next.

Explicit sex

I suppose the sex been there from the start of his career, but in the novels from the Noughties, it feels like the sex in Hiaasen books has become more prominent and more crudely explicit. In Star Island out-of-control pop star Cherry Bunterman sits on Abbott’s thigh and presses her hot pudenda down against him so that he feels her hot ‘wedge’ pushing against his leg. That struck me as unusually explicit and porny.

On page 27 of this book, Yancy is described with his head between Bonnie’s legs, but it isn’t left at that. Bonnie has recently shaved her pubes and so Yancy finds himself rubbing ‘his chin back and forth across her pale stubble’ (p.27).

Later, Yancy and Dr Rosa have sex in the morgue where she works, on one of the stainless steel dissection tables. As so often in Hiaasen, the woman takes the dominant position, hitching up her coat (she’s wearing nothing underneath) straddling and riding him (p.164). Later on, Neville will eavesdrop on the thug Egg being straddled and ridden by the bony drunken voodoo queen (p.236). Near the end of the book Dr Rosa and Yancy have a bath and, again, she straddles and rides him (p.387). The woman riding cowgirl position is definitely Hiaasen’s sexual position of choice (in his fictions). Later, after they’ve flown to Andros, in the hotel, Yancy goes down on Dr Rosa (p.238) while humming Yellow Submarine. I’m sure there is more sex and more explicitly described, than in the first novels from the 1980s. When it’s between characters we are meant to be rooting for (Yancy and Dr Rosa) it is described in reasonably sensitive and sort of loving terms. But elsewhere, sex is portrayed (as I commented in my last review) as having become equivalent to a commercial transaction.

It so happened that one of the most feared divorce lawyers in the tri-state region would be attending that night’s fund-raiser, and Evan Shook’s wife said she planned to fuck him and then hire him. (p.346)

Just hiring him wouldn’t be enough. I understand that Hiaasen’s novels are documentaries or sociological surveys, they are savage farces in which everything is meant to be cranked up and exaggerated. I also understand that sex has always played a central role in the genre of farce because sex is humanity’s weakest point, the fact that human beings have sex lives completely undermines all attempts to portray ourselves as sensible, mature and rational beings.

But all that understood, there is still something particularly rotten and corrupt about the way so many secondary characters in Hiaasen use sex purely as a transaction, our of boredom, to get their way, and have stripped it of any psychological significance whatever.

The American opioid epidemic

Once upon a time, back in the golden 1960s, there was a brief moment when ‘drugs’ were portrayed as an escape from humdrum, boring, bourgeois lifestyles. But 50 years later, they are universally available, widely taken, and the new wave of highly addictive painkillers has made junkies of large numbers of otherwise traditional and respectable people in the Great American Opioid Epidemic.

Hiaasen knows all about this and makes Bonnie’s offensively self-righteous husband an immoral quack who is adding his halfpennyworth to the misery of millions.

Dr Clifford Witt had recently retired from the practice of medicine, having invested in a chain of lucrative storefront pain clinics that dispensed Percocets and Vicodins by the bucket to a new wave of American redneck junkies. (p.20)

Americanisms

In another review I’ve pointed out how, across the 35 years of Hiaasen’s publishing career, you can watch the American language mutate and evolve. One aspect of this is the words which have been shortened, like carry bag where we’d say carri-er bag, swim trunks where we’d say swim-ming trunks, high strung where we’d say high-ly strung. Maybe making words shorter is the lexical equivalent of fast food.

In other places, I enjoyed collecting instances of new words or new uses for existing words:

  • a bounce house = bouncey castle
  • a bumblefuck = idiot
  • frosted = to be angry
  • a fuckstick = idiot
  • a goober = a peanut, a fool (p.221)
  • jazzed = pleased (p.400)
  • a mook = a stupid or incompetent person
  • a mope = noun meaning ‘A person of lower socio-economic status that leeches off the greater good of society, is lazy and is normally involved in some sort of criminal activity’.
  • to be stoked = interested (p.333)
  • ‘The sheriff’s wigging’ = very concerned, going spare (p.190)
  • ‘Sheriff Summers was a chronic stickler and worrywart’

Which,

Talking of Hiaasen’s use of English, this book contains a grammatical form I’ve never seen before, the novel use of ‘which’. ‘Which’ can be used several ways (as an interrogative starting a question) but the relevant usage here is when it is used to introduce a relative clause, as in, ‘The dog which bit me’, where which obviously refers back to the noun ‘dog’ in order to enable the description of what it did.

This use of ‘which’ takes its traditional function and then kind of supercharges and elides it. It’s associated with the Christopher Grunion character who uses it as a speedy shorthand to just pick up conversations. I assume it’s a verbal tic Hiaasen has noticed and transcribed, it’s an odd but powerful usage.

There followed an animated discussion that ricocheted between the subjects of urgent medical care and Eve’s gross culpability for Stripling being ambushed. Which, the guy who attacked him? Nick had no goddam idea who it was. (p.319)

Where ‘which’ means something like ‘Who was he, was the guy who attacked him?’ but is quicker.

He couldn’t stop railing about what had happened. Which, what are the odds of getting randomly stabbed in your own back yard during a hurricane? (p.320)

Where ‘which’ isn’t really needed at all, it’s a verbal tic.

Or he could pack up and run. Purchase a new identity, find another place to hide and start over as an international fugitive. Which, talk about exhausting. (p.322)

See what I mean? It’s difficult to concoct a direct translation into standard English, but you can see what he’s doing – using ‘which’ as an all-purpose way of connecting one thought to another,

But all he could talk about was hunting down Yancy before he could escape. Which, no way was that shithead going to sneak out of Andros today. (p.324)

Say the world ‘outlaw’ and everyone thinks bank robber, but did Dillinger cut off a limb to trick the FBI into thinking he was dead? No, sir, he went to the movies and got shot full of lead. Which, these days any fuckwit with a ballpoint pen and a Halloween mask could rob a bank.

I suppose the standard usage would be to replace ‘which’ in this example with ‘whereas’, but Grunion is clearly not a chap who fusses about his parts of speech. He uses ‘which’ indiscriminately to yank together bits of thought process.

Stripling wondered aloud if the stealth urinator was the same man he’d caught snooping outside the house, the old black guy he’d run off with the shotgun. Which, who’d be crazy enough to come back after somebody fired a twelve-gauge over their head? (p.352)

‘Quit being an asshole, Nicky. You weren’t in the medical care business, you were in the stealing business.’ Which, he would have run over her ungrateful ass with the Rollie except the motor didn’t work because Egg had removed the battery to lighten the vehicle for pushing. (p.354)

Yes, in these last two examples the use of ‘which’ is not grammatically necessary, and when it’s used it’s generally incorrectly, in the wrong grammatical way – but it does have the effect of picking up the thought and jumping to the next one, regardless. In many ways I enjoyed this unusual but effective usage more than a lot of the plot.


Credit

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013. All references are to the 2014 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

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)

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen (2010)

The setup

Cherry Pye aged 22 (p.396) is a teenage American pop star. She was born Cheryl Gail Bunterman and her ambitious mother, Janet Bunterman was entering her for into talent competitions from the age of 4. Little Cheryl’s voice was poor but her parents compensated by dressing her in provocative clothes and getting her dance lessons from a local stripper. They changed her name to the soft porn-sounding Cherry Pye when she got her first speaking part in a TV show, aged 14, wearing a ‘dubious buckskin cowgirl outfit’ (p.5).

Cherry was spotted by pop impresario, closet paedophile and owner of Jailbait Records, Maury Lykes, who gave her 3 months of intensive coaching and released her first single on Cherry’s birthday. It wasn’t actually Cherry on the single, she was never going to be able to sing, they hired a backing singer and concentrated on teaching Cherry how to dance and lip sync ahead of the lucrative tours organised to cash in on the record (p.20). Together, Janet and Maury developed a special look to establish Cherry’s brand:

‘The BLS brand’, Maury called it – barely legal slut, the essential ingredient being an air of insouciant fuckability. (p.279)

But as a result of all this, Cherry (‘a simpleton, shallow as a thimble’, p.281), at the age of 22, has developed a major drug habit. More accurately, she scarfs down whatever is on the table, be it alcohol, pills or powders, even birdseed! The narrative opens as Cherry’s lying on the floor of a premier room at the luxury Stefano hotel, throwing up (again), worried over by her team, her mother, a young actor she spent the early evening with, her pair of identical twins PR advisers, Lila and Lucy Lark (backstory p.172), and her tough minder, Lev, formerly of the Israeli Mossad. They’re all waiting for the private paramedics to arrive, take Cherry to a private hospital and pump her stomach. Again.

It’s such a recurrent problem that Cherry’s team have a tried and tested procedure in place. For some time they have been using a body double, a lookalike, an actress who is the spitting image of Cherry, to fill in for her, to make public appearances, to attend celebrity parties and so on, when the real Cherry is either in intensive care or at one of her many visits to a rehab clinic.

This double is named Ann DeLusia, aged 24 (p.212), an aspiring actress. She gets fed up sometimes by being at Cherry’s mother’s beck and call, but the pay is good, $800 a week (p.100).

The other character we’re introduced to early on is a paparazzo, Claude ‘Bang’ Abbott, 44 (p.316), a fat, unhygienic slob, but a very good photographer with deep experience in newspaper work (‘back in the day when newspapers mattered’, p.25) before he switched to the more lucrative career of snapping celebrities’ unguarded moments.

Bang got a hot tip about Cherry’s latest overdose from hotel staff, but was then fooled into following and photographing Ann, the lookalike, who was brought out the back of the hotel on a gurney, rather than the real Cherry who was smuggled out the front into a nondescript car. Only as he closes the ambulance doors, does the paramedic reveal that Bang has been ‘had’, much to his irritation.

Bang is convinced that pretty soon Cherry is going to do an Elvis and expire on the john, overdose or generally ‘buy the farm’ i.e. die young – and he wants to have built up a portfolio of photos of the teen star in all possible states of wastage so that he’ll be in a position to bring out an entire coffee table book recording her sorry descent. Think Marilyn. He’ll make a fortune, be able to retire. That’s the plan. Wasted Cherry is his pension.

Pause to assess

So, as usual, Hiaasen is extremely effective at introducing us very quickly to quite a gallery of characters, each drawn with swift precise descriptions, so that within 40 or so pages an entire corrupt and rancid world has been vividly depicted.

As to the subject matter, regular readers of my blog know that I got progressively more disillusioned by the novels of William Gibson as he turned his back on his science fiction roots and wrote longer and longer books which aspire to be thrillers but also feature characters from fictional rock bands, thrillers in which the lead characters wear ‘cool’ leather jackets, ripped t-shirts and shades. Gibson’s early science fiction novels are strange and mind-expanding, while his later ‘thrillers’, especially in their tiresome depictions of the cool world of rock bands, are lame and clichéd.

So I am, in theory, bored of novels set in the shallow, cynical, drug-addled world of pop stars and celebrities and so, in theory, ought to dislike this one, too. Not only do I have a general aversion to this milieu, but Hiaasen has already set one novel in the corrupt world of contemporary music, Basket Case, centring on the murder of a leading rock star who, it turns out, was done in by his scheming wife. It’s a little disappointing that Hiaasen has resorted to covering the same territory twice in the space of just four novels.

On the other hand, it is still a Hiaasen novel, which means that even when it has hints of being a retread, it is outrageously funny. Instead of Gibson’s po-faced and pretentious world, Hiaasen’s savagely amoral frolics skip along at a cracking pace, the dialogue is razor sharp, the characters continually taking your breath away with their stunning amorality.

Unexpected alliances, arguments and double crosses come thick and fast. It is, in other words, continuously shocking and surprising and very entertaining. The characters aren’t rude, they are off-the-scale amoral, cynical, manipulative, grotesquely threatening and violent.

Take the moment when Maury, frustrated at Cherry’s behaviour, has treated himself to a quiet night in, and invites three underage prostitutes round to tie him to his bed and take turns spanking him with badminton rackets. That’s when he gets a phone call from Chemo, the grotesque bodyguard he’s hired to find Cherry when she disappears (again). Hence Chemo’s call, except Chemo announces that now he’s found the errant pop star, he’s not going to return her unless he gets more money, not least because she taunted him (Chemo) about his grim appearance. Hence the call:

Chemo said, ‘You wanna see her alive, then double my pay.’
‘Unfuckingbelievable.’
‘She called me “Waffle Face”. Normally I’d kill a person for that. Normally I’d stick a frog gig up their nostrils and yank their tongue out by the roots.’ (p.117)

It’s a kind of peak Hiaasen moment: the rancid pedophile agent being tied down and whipped by pubescent girls having to negotiate with a 6 foot nine freak hitman about the ransom for a drug-addled, talentless celebrity.

Presumably there are, somewhere in America, a few people who aren’t cynical, amoral, criminal, corrupt and violent scumbags, who don’t instantly resort to fury and physical violence whenever their slightest whim or plan is thwarted. Presumably. Somewhere. But not in Carl Hiaasen’s novels.

Plot developments

As a result of the Stefano hotel meltdown, Cherry is sent to rehab, again and Janet tells Ann DaLusia she can take a few days off, so she drives down to Florida which she’s always wanted to see. She takes the Card Bridge route onto Key Largo and is whizzing round a corner when she sees a man standing in the middle of the road, swerves and goes careening off the road, through a stand of trees and crashes into a creek. Oops.

Anna wakes up to find herself being tended by Skink, SKINK, Hiaasen’s most popular recurring character, the semi-deranged former Florida governor-turned-eco-vigilante, complete with plastic shower cap, long grey braids and dazzling smile.

As in each of the books he appears in, the author gives us a slightly new version of Skink’s backstory as well as a variation on his motivation, namely the depthless outrage he feels at the rape of the wild countryside he grew up in:

The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – transformed by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous. (p.197)

But it doesn’t do to sentimentalise Skink. He is a violent vigilante. At one point he’s hiding out under a pier down on a beach late at night and happens to hear two men manhandling a drunk woman down onto the sand and then knocking her down with a view to raping her. Skink moves in and the paramedics who are later called to the scene are impressed to discover that each of the men has a compound fracture in every limb (p.239). Skink did that, not just beat them up but carefully broke their bones. We are told that from time to time he eats the pets of disagreeable people (p.262). He ties up a Haitian cabbie and steals his cab when it suits him (p.264). He is not a sweetheart. He is genuinely dangerous.

Having pulled her from her crashed car, Skink takes her off to his remote camp in the forest, tends to Ann’s light injuries and feeds her some roadkill alligator tail, which isn’t as disgusting as she first fears. But when she asks to be taken back to civilisation, Skink explains that first she has to help him with his latest scam. This is to hold up a bus full of corrupt and wealthy investors who are engaged in yet another of the countless crooked and environmentally ruinous property developments which Hiaasen’s novels are full of.

Skink tells Ann to step into the road and flag down the bus carrying the developers from the airport to a private hotel facility. Then he leaps out of the bushes and onto the bus terrorises them with a gun, and tying the most corrupt of them, Jackie Sebago, to a tree with a sea urchin stuffed down his pants and rammed into his ‘nutsack’.

By the time the cops arrive, Ann is ready with her story that her car crashed then she doesn’t remember anything till stumbling onto the bus. The cops believe her, let her go, and Ann returns to civilisation pretty dazed by this weird encounter.

Meanwhile, at the Rainbow Bend rehab centre Cherry has met Methane Drudge, drummer with fictional band the Poon Pilots (p.51) (shades of William Gibson and fictional rock bands with lame names).

Together they break out of the rehab grounds, scrambling over the five foot wall. Methane twists his ankle landing, and limps badly as he follows Cherry to the road. Here they discover a car parked and Cherry knocks on the window. The electric window winds down to reveal none other than Cherry’s fanatical paparazzo devotee, Bang Abbott, who is amazed at Cherry’s sudden apparition and staggered when she asks him to drive her to the airport. There is some typically brutal comedy when lame Methane knocks on the back door window asking to be admitted to the car but Cherry blithely tells Abbott to drive off and leave him behind.

Not only that but when they get to the airport and she whistles up her private jet, Cherry impulsively invites Abbott onto the plane to accompany her. So the excited fat man grabs his several cases of expensive cameras and jogs up the steps. And not only that, but half way across America (flying from California to Florida) bored, Cherry whips off her jeans and straddles him, presumably pulling out his pecker, because they have sex. It only last for four minutes but leaves Abbott seriously dazed and confused. (Women on top, riding a man in the ‘cowgirl position’, is Hiaasen’s favourite fictional sexual position, it recurs in most of the novels, most memorably enacted by Dr Rosa Campesino on a steel mortuary table in Bad Monkey.)

This brief intimacy doesn’t stop Abbott, when Cherry falls asleep, getting his camera out and knocking off some shots of Cherry lying asleep and snoring and unbuttoned and sprawled across her plane seat. These will prove excellent photos for the photo-biography he’s planning of her decline and fall.

However, all this comes to naught because, when they land in Miami, her chauffeur-driven car is waiting, the driver loads all the bags, including all Abbott’s cameras, and then, just as with Methane, she simply drives off before Abbott can get into the car, leaving Abbott stamping and fuming on the airport tarmac. Later, with an actor she’s picked up at an upscale nightclub, she reviews Abbott’s photos and blithely deletes them one by one.

Meanwhile, there is a significant development on the bodyguard front. The novel opens with young Cherry being bodyguarded by a tough goon named Lev, who is ex-Mossad. But goaded by Cherry’s mom one too many times, he quits, thus giving her manager, Maury Lykes, a headache about finding a replacement. Luckily he knows a country and western star, Presley Aaron, who went way off the rails for a period of addiction but turned his life around and is now fit and buff and recording again. The turnaround was managed by his brothers who hired a tough minder to guard him. It is this minder which Maury now hires to look after Cherry. She needs some tough love.

And as soon as Maury and Janet Bunterman are introduced to him in a nightclub, the seasoned Hiaasen reader immediately realises that Cherry’s new bodyguard is none other than the freakish sociopath nicknamed ‘Chemo‘ who we first met in novel 3 of the series, 1989’s Skin Tight.

Chemo, as you might imagine with Hiaasen, has a very detailed and freakish backstory (summarised on page 252 ff.). Suffice to say that Chemo stands 6 foot 9 inches tall, his face was fried in a freak accident during some minor plastic surgery (the dermatologist had a stroke and instead of excising a small growth, ended up applying the electric doodad across his whole face so that his face now looks like a bowl of rice krispies). Which explains why Chemo is in a permanently very bad mood. Most bizarre of all, after he had his hand bitten off by a barracuda in Skin Tight, he replaced it not with a prosthetic attachment, but with a battery-powered strimmer or weed whacker as the Americans call it.

Comedy

All this and more has been conveyed in less than the first hundred pages. The forms of Hiaasen’s comedy can be categorised into half a dozen or so levels or types:

Plots

Most obvious is the overall shape of the plots where grotesque and preposterous, farcically improbable events take place, such as the body double actress getting caught up in Skink’s hijacking of a coach full of property investors.

Characters

The characters themselves are often so grotesque as to be funny in themselves, such as the famously strong but half-deranged eco-vigilante Skink or the strimmer-handed, beanpole bodyguard Chemo. Although it is noticeable that this pair, the most garish and entertaining of all the characters in the book, were invented decades earlier (in 1987 and 1989, respectively).

Universal corruption

On a less extreme level, it is funny the way the narrator describes the semi-criminal or immoral activities of his characters, activities which most of us would regard as beyond the pale, but which the narrator mentions with a deliberate casualness designed to emphasise the rancid, rotten, corrupt and immoral culture he is dissecting. Such as the throwaway remark that Maury Lykes is not only a successful pop impresario but has a ‘criminal fondness for underage girls’ (p.20) and the later scene, only a few paragraphs long, in which he arranges for three underage girls who he’s promised parts in his next show, to come to his house, tied him with parachute cords to his bed and take turns spanking him with badminton rackets to the sound of the Disney track, ‘We’re all in this together‘ (p.116). That really is a standout scene.

On a quieter note, it is so casually said you barely notice it when Cherry tells the young actor Tanner Dane Keefe that he wants her to accompany her on her upcoming tour because: ‘I don’t like screwing strangers, especially roadies.’ (p.119) The implication being that, obviously, she has to be screwing someone, almost continuously, right, she’d just prefer if it was someone she knew or liked. That level of moral abandonment.

Compared to that level of debauchery it seems fairly bland, but nonetheless way out of most people’s orbit of experience, when the narrator explains that Janet put ups with her husband, Ned’s, long-standing bisexual affair with another married couple, a) because he’s good with Cherry’s earnings and b) because she herself ‘is sweatily involved’ with her 30-year-old tennis coach (p.68).

Everyone in Hiaasen novels is unfaithful. In fact it’s not clear that the idea of faithfulness exists any more. Why get married if you don’t want to have affairs?

Amorality

All the characters casually demonstrate the most breath-taking cynicism, putting into words ideas and collocations of incident and intention which are way beyond the average person’s experience:

Chemo was the first convicted murderer that Maury Lykes had ever put on the payroll, and he hoped the man understood the concept of boundaries. (p.116)

The comedy extends from what you could call high-level cynicism, through a hierarchy of criminality and casual amorality, down to the more gutter level of sheer venomous abuse, which all these horrible people routinely treat each other to:

Lev said, ‘I hope you get cancer of the schlong. I hope it falls off in your hand.’ (p.30)

It made me laugh because it’s so outrageous, and that summarises Hiaasen’s schtick in a phrase. These novels are outrageous festivals of amorality, horribleness and insult.

Seething narrator

Vituperation isn’t limited to the characters. The narrator himself boils with rage at the corrupt and scuzzy world around him. Within pages of starting reading the reader is forced to acclimatise to Hiaasen’s super-cynical attitude and abrasive phraseology. As a tiny example he doesn’t refer to Miami International airport but to ‘the clusterfuck known as Miami International’ (p.27), conveying three levels of implication:

  1. dropping the ‘airport’ because he assumes the reader is hip enough to get the reference
  2. letting the reader know his attitude to Florida’s ‘advanced’ i.e. heavily polluting and environmentally destructive infrastructure
  3. signalling that he isn’t shy about using latest American vernacular = there’s going to be a lot of swearing

So, there is comic entertainment to be enjoyed at multiple levels:

  • plot
  • character
  • the narrator’s seething cynicism
  • his characters’ cynical attitude
  • their whip-smart repartee
  • or plain old abuse

Silly nightclub names

It is a typical minor running gag running through his books that Hiaasen – not, we suspect, a great fan of cocaine-fuelled nightclubs full of drug dealers, crooked lawyers and property developers – gives comic names to the fictional nightclubs which appear in his novels.

Skin Tight featured a club named ‘the Gay Bidet’ where a whole series of ludicrously named punk bands performed and where Chemo, incidentally, worked part-time as a bouncer. Strip Tease featured a strip joint which changes its name from ‘The Eager Beaver’ to ‘Tickled Pink’, and in other books there’s the club named ‘Lube’. In the same spirit, in this novel Cherry meets young Tanner Dane Keefe at a South Beach nightclub named ‘Abscess’ (p.118), which brought a smile to my lips.

Later on, we are taken to a gimmicky nightclub named ‘Club Ortho’ where everyone has to wear a cast and pretend to have a broken bone (p.244). In the second half the fictional nightclub named ‘Pubes’ gets namechecked and in fact provides the setting for the rather feeble shooting of Abbott, which more or less ends the main narrative (see below).

As it happens, William Gibson also has a fondness for silly nightclubs, in his case less notable for their names than for their ‘wacky’ gimmicks, such as the bubblegum-themed bar or the Kafka-themed club or the restaurant with a full-sized replica Russian tank parked in the middle, The Western World. It is characteristic that Gibson’s comic bar ideas are strained and pretentious whereas Hiaasen’s are gleefully obscene. I go for glee every time.

More plot

Abbott wants his cameras back and wants access to Cherry. Therefore he stakes out the hotel Cherry has checked into and waits till Cherry exits the hotel and gets into the waiting limousine. He cleverly hijacks this by getting a bellhop to drop a load of cases in front of the car, blocking its way, so that the chauffeur and Chemo the bodyguard get out to angrily help the bellhop pile them back onto a luggage trolley, only to hear the limo reverse and skid off with Abbott at the wheel. So far, so clever except that… it is not Cherry in the limo but Ann the body double!

The central part of the novel will be built around this mistake, with Abbott at first not knowing what to do with the body double and then contacting Janet Bunterman offering to return Ann in one piece in exchange for one day with Cherry. (They worry that he’s a pervert but we know it’s not for sex purposes but in order to take a massive portfolio of photos which he can use when, as he expects, she ‘buys the farm’ i.e. dies).

Negotiations are then carried out between Abbott and Chemo, representing the Bunterman family and the manager, Maury, Abbott having first drugged Ann and locked her up in the boot of a hire car.

In fact there’s a whole sequence of meetings between the two men, with Chemo then reporting back Abbott’s demands to his employers, who carefully weigh the options. One option they consider is to let Ann die since, when she is returned a) she’s unlikely to want to continue the job b) if she spills the beans her story will go bigger in the press than Cherry’s comeback album and tour, so she represents a financial threat to all of them.

Now, when Skink released Ann, he gave her his mobile number and, during a moment to herself in a motel toilet, Ann manages to phone Skink and tell him she’s been kidnapped. Skink, though old enough to be her father, had taken a liking to Ann during their couple of days together in the wild Everglades, and so now he sets out on a quest to track her down and release her.

I expected this whole situation would lead up to a mega-violent confrontation but it doesn’t, instead it’s something of an anti-climax. The Buntermans eventually agree to Abbott’s terms, namely that Abbott gets a whole day with Cherry in Keefe’s house (which is on the detached, millionaire enclave of Star Island, which gives the novel its title) to do a serious photoshoot, all under the watchful eye of the baleful Chemo. In the end, all pretty reasonable and non-violent.

Nonetheless, on the way towards this event, the plot at moments feels like the Maltese Falcon, with increasingly complex double crosses all round: without telling Janet Maury pays Chemo to kill Abbott, but Abbott persuades Chemo they can make a fortune by selling the camera full of great fashion photos Abbott has just taken (Abbott is genuinely a good photographer). Meanwhile Abbott, while he had kidnapped Ann, took a load of photos of her with her hair over her face so she looks like Cherry, handcuffed to a bathroom sink, apparently shooting up with a syringe, and he’s gotten in touch with the editor of a tabloid newspaper with a view to selling them.

It all gets very convoluted, a pell-mell of crosses and double crosses, and yet I became steadily more detached, and a bit bored.  Maury tells Chemo to kill Abbott. Then to kill Ann. But Skink has by this time tracked down Ann and become her de facto bodyguard. Anyway, Chemo’s come to admire her spunky attitude. He thinks she’s a ‘pisser’, which is a term of praise.

The climax of the book is disappointing by Hiaasen’s standards. Cherry slips out of the house where she’s being kept to dry out before her upcoming tour and new album release and goes to the legendary nightclub Pubes. Here Ann is waiting for her and confronts her with what she intends to be the dazzling revelation that she, Ann, has been the spoilt little girl’s double for all these years and her parents never even told her.

But Cherry doesn’t respond with a sudden epiphany, a realisation of how shallow her existence is and a determination to turn her life around. She just attacks Ann, knocks her to the dancefloor (they’re in a nightclub) and starts feebly pummeling her until Chemo wades in, picks her up and takes her away.

Skink had come to the club with Ann (Ann had bought him a swanky suit and persuaded him to cut off his long grey braids) and he now picks her up and leaves with her.

Abbott is also at the club and furious with himself because he missed the shot of Cherry being carried out by Chemo. But then Ann calls out to him amid the scrum of paparazzi and he is just about to take her photo when a hired killer in the crowd takes out a gun and shoots him in the ass.

What? Why? Because in the complexity of the second half of the plot, Abbott had forgotten to pay off one of the many narcs and contacts he employs to routinely tip him off about celebs at hotels and bars. He has hundreds of them, he always owes them little sums of money, they’re calling and hassling him all the time, and he has been a little busy involved in a kidnapping scam. All this explains why he’s persistently ignored the calls of one contact in particular, and this guy has gotten so irritated that he’s hired a hitman to shoot Abbott.

So that’s the (rather thin) explanation for this climactic shooting except that… the man fails. They aren’t standing yards apart which would allow for a clean shot, they are smothered together in a heaving crowd and so the man only manages to shoot Abbott in the buttock. The shot disperses the crowd, including the hitman. Abbott is taken to hospital, the bullet removed, the damage to his big guts repaired. It’s all rather… inconsequential.

Tying up loose ends

Cherry’s album flops and the tour doesn’t sell out, so she changes her name and moves into TV. Ann works on a new career. Abbott returns to papping. With the revival of the property market, Chemo gives up being a gun for hire and returns to his former career selling mortgages (broad Hiaasian satire at the type of person who sells mortgages i.e. deranged murderers).

Skink disappears back into the boondocks, though it’s worth emphasising that the novel contains a distinct strand about a detective who has become interested in him. Remember Jackie Sebago the crooked property developer from the start of the book, whose coach Skink hijacks and down whose pants he stuffs a sea urchin? Well, one of the investors in his property development, a no-nonsense crim named Shea, insists he wants his money back and when Sebago is unable to return it ($850,000) because he’s spent it, Shea hires a hitman who kills Sebago by shooting him through the chest with a speargun.

The point being that the cops scour the locality of the murder and stumble across Skink’s camp in the outback. Detective Riley pieces together scattered appearances by Skink: holding up the coach, a speedboat is stolen from nearby; the testimony of the drunk woman who was saved from rape by a scruffy stranger on the beach; a man of the same description seizing the little pet dog out of the arms of a woman in a hotel lobby who was describing how her husband and friends clubbed some dolphins to death; and so on.

Riley gets so far as tracking Skink down to the Miami hotel where he’s staying with Ann, solely in the capacity of her protector. But as Detective Riley interviews, the couple Skink gives blissfully, surreally oblique answers and the cop doesn’t get anywhere. He’s looked up Skink’s record on computer and knows he served in Vietnam. He knows Skink now lives out in the woods not harming anyone. Well, unless they’re scumbags like Jackie Sebago. Detective Riley decides there’s no case against Skink, no evidence, and leaves town wishing him well.

This investigation-of-Skink storyline starts out being quite threatening, as if Skink might actually be arrested, but then becomes amusing but so inconsequential I wondered whether it was setting itself up for some kind of sequel. Will Detective Riley appear in subsequent novels and become Skink’s pursuer?

In this it’s a little like the other storylines, which all fizzle out. Cherry survives, Chemo survives, Ann survives, Skink survives and Abbott survives. They all go their separate ways. Is that it? Bit disappointing…

The banalisation of sex and drugs and guns

1. Sex

Fifty years ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a generation of idealists thought that, if we only took all our clothes off, acknowledged our sexuality, forsook sexual jealousy and indulged in free love, the world would become a better place. The results, like any great social change, were complex and mixed. Without doubt many millions of people experienced genuine personal liberation and the breaking  of taboos around gender and sexuality have been transformative.

On the other hand, the notion that simply getting naked and having sex changes or improves society has been roundly disproved. Arguably, the opposite has happened, and this novel contains numerous instances tending to indicate the way sex has ceased to have any special moral or psychological significance and become utterly debased, a bodily function with as much glamour or spiritual significance as having a crap.

Cherry is in one sense an embodiment of the complete degradation of sex to an empty transaction. She straddles and rides fat Abbott to orgasm because she’s bored. She whines to the young actor Keefe that she wants him to come on tour so she can fuck him instead of having to fuck the roadies, the implication being that she has to fuck someone on a daily, almost hourly basis. We are told that she got round her tough Israeli bodyguard, Lev, by fellating him on a regular basis or letting him ‘bone’ her with a platinum stud through the head of his penis. To get a room service boy at the Stefano to smuggle in drugs to her room (after Chemo has been made her bodyguard with strict instructions to keep her clean) Cherry offers the boy a blowjob.

In Hiaasen’s American sex has become a form of currency, just another version of the cash nexus.

And it isn’t just Cherry for whom sex is a mindless addiction. Abbott, aroused by remembering the mile high shag with Cherry, gets an erection while sitting in his car and whines that the steering wheel is getting in the way, so he shuffles over to the passenger seat to have a wank.

Knocking one off, squeezing one out, wanking, is as casual a business as wiping your nose, and as empty of meaning. From keeping close tabs on her, Chemo gets to know that when she has no-one to fellate or to bone her, Cherry sets her iphone to vibrate and puts it against her crotch so each incoming text or call stimulates her pussy (p.372).

At the bourgeois end of the spectrum, we learn that Cherry’s parents’ marriage is a purely business arrangement: her father has a long standing menage-a-trois with a Danish couple, the sophisticated Jorgensens, while her mom is boffing her tennis coach. So far, so normal, for American marriages.

At the other, more extreme end of the spectrum, we learn that the young actor Tana Dane Keefe has a part in the latest Tarantino movie where he plays a necrophiliac, ‘a corpse-diddling longboarder’ (p.205). It all reminds me of the old rugby song, ‘Bestiality’s best, boys, bestiality’s best.’

The trouble with this kind of thing, with the adolescent urge to shock, is that eventually there’s nowhere left to go. It is possible to hollow out human existence, the meaning of human life, entirely, until it’s completely empty. This is why I despise Tarantino and his ilk. It’s slavery for laughs, it’s murder for entertainment, it’s the death of any attempt to maintain manners, respect and subtlety. It is an insult to the human spirit. But hey, it wins Oscars!

So an infinitely more liberated approach to sex than was conceivable for most people in the 1960s has not led to a happier society or happier individuals, has it? Instead of being the road to freedom that the sexual liberationists imagined, sex has turned out to be just one more dead end, one more rut which only confirms our bad habits and bad decisions.

Relying on sex for a ‘fulfilled’ life is like relying on alcohol or any other drug. Sex has become just another activity like drinking or playing cards which is sometimes meaningful and significant but is mostly humdrum and often just a habit, a potentially smelly, selfish or disease-spreading habit. For the most part, for most of the scumbag characters in Hiaasen’s novels, sex has been emptied of any sacral or numinous meaning that it once had.

Hence the superficially funny but ultimately sad set of phrases which hip Americans have developed  to categorise different types of fuck, the mercy fuck, the sport fuck and the speed fuck (p.338). Fucks are now as coolly categorised and named as brands of handbag.

2. Drugs

Something similar for drugs. It’s a long time since the hippies recommended that we turn on, tune in and drop out. Since then we went through the cocaine wave of the 1970s, the crack cocaine wave of the 1980s, and for the last few decades America has been enjoying the growing tide of the opioid epidemic.

Cherry and her buddies are symptomatic of a generation which has no reservations whatsoever about drugs and so has become greedily, selfishly addicted to whatever it can get its hands on. Thus Cherry quite literally swallows any pills available, including at one mildly comic moment, a handful of dog de-worming pills, doggie laxatives (p.370).

In Cherry and young Tanner Dane Keefe’s hands drug culture has just become a pointless addiction, and their readiness to take anything, anything at all to get off their faces, is about as spiritual or psychologically enlightening as sitting in a pool of your own vomit stuffing your face with Big Macs.

Thus Cherry bribes the room service boy to bring her every illicit substance he can get his hands on and this adds up to: Zanax, tramadol, Ecstacy, Bayer gelcaps, Ex-Lax, banana nut Cheerios and a bottle of Stoli vodka (p.317) all of which she proceeds to swallow, vomiting copiously some time later.

3. Guns

Something similar is true of guns, by which I mean that, in stories like this, shooting people is just an everyday activity which some people do as casually as drinking a beer or having a wank. Shooting someone, like taking drugs or casual sex, has (not for all, but for a fair percentage of the characters) been emptied of any particular meaning.

This really came home in the scenes where Abbott has kidnapped Ann. He asks about her nose, which got hit during the kidnap, asks to borrow headache pills, discusses Cherry’s personality, threatens to shoot her, takes her into a MacDonalds for a meal, explains the realities of life as a paparazzo, threatens to shoot her. It’s just another topic of conversation thrown in among other rather humdrum chats. ‘Pass the ketchup. Oh yeah, if I can’t get the ransom for you, I’ll have to kill you, OK.’ It has ceased to register as a big deal.

In one of the hotels where Abbott is keeping Ann hostage, they actually have a tussle over his gun which Ann grabs hold of, and in their half-assed struggle, the gun accidentally goes off and shoots the tip of Abbott’s forefinger off, the one he uses to press the shutter on his camera, which is vital to his career.

It is remarkable how neither of the characters are particularly upset about this and neither is the author. Not only does it typify the casual approach to guns and gun injuries, it demonstrates something else as well. In previous novels something really grotesque would have happened to Abbott for him having been the baddie all the way through, but in this one, it’s as if Hiaasen can’t be bothered to come up with anything really macabre. The climax of the novel is that the bumbling kidnapper gets shot in the bum.

The casual way modern Americans think about shooting and killing is demonstrated in the closing stretches of the novel where Cherry’s manager, Maury, first of all considers letting Abbott kill the kidnapped Ann, then pays Chemo to kill Abbott, then (when he doesn’t), orders him to kill Ann.

Nothing personal, it’s all purely business, these are just tactics to protect Cherry’s ‘brand’ and not jeopardise the upcoming tour and CD release. In this world, killing people is a legitimate business strategy.

My point is that the threats to kill someone come quite casually in among a range of other humdrum conversational topics; that the activity of shooting someone either to wound or kill them; have become utterly banal and empty and meaningless, as trivial as offering them a cigarette or holding a door open for them or blowing their head off.

Bang Abbott shook his head. ‘Unbelievable. I may have to shoot the fucker.’ (p.257)

Maybe shoot the fucker. Maybe not. Meh. Whatever.

Repetition

I can’t help noticing that this novel repeats several ideas or tropes from previous books. The entire notion of satirising the music industry had previously formed the basis of novel 9 in the series, Basket Case. Admittedly, that was about grown-up rock and adult rock stars whereas this novel is about the distinct and different teenybop market and focuses on a stroppy teenage pop star. But still, it’s fundamentally about the same glossy, empty, pop music-fashion-nightclubbing scene.

The return of Skink and Chemo can either be seen as the welcome reprise of old favourites or… as a sign that Hiaasen was running out of ideas for the kinds of grotesque characters which infested his earlier fiction. Any way you cook it, Chemo is a straight retread from an earlier, much more imaginatively varied and powerful novel.

What crystallised this sense of repetition was when I read in chapter 12 that Cherry’s two PR people, the twins Lucy and Lila Lark, had a long-burning ambition to have plastic surgery in order to be transformed into completely identical twins. The thing is, this is very similar to the storyline in Sick Puppy about the two leggy East European ‘models’ Katya and Tish who are housed, fed and watered by the slimy ex-drug smuggling property developer Robert Clapley because he wants to use plastic surgery to turn them into an identical pair of Barbie dolls. Or, as he puts it with typically Hiaasenesque crudeness:

‘How often in a guy’s lifetime does he have a chance to get sucked off by two semi-identical six-foot dolls?’ (p.137)

Feels like the same basic idea.

And there’s another repeat of an earlier book: Chemo becomes so incensed by airhead Cherry’s repetition of the same limited lexicon, that he retrieves a cattle prod he bought soon after leaving prison, and gives her electric shocks every time she says ‘like’, ‘awesome’, ‘sweet’, ‘sick’, ‘totally’, ‘hot’ and ‘dude’ (p.301). Quite quickly he has to only gesture towards the prong and she corrects herself.

This is pretty funny, and an apt satire on the spread of airhead Legally Blonde lexicon among America’s teens, but we’ve been here before. In Stormy Weather Skink hijacks a couple of newly-weds and fits the asinine husband with a dog-training electric collar. Every time he steps out of line Skink inflicts a massive electric shock which knocks the husband unconscious. Quite quickly the husband anticipates the shocks, eventually falling and rolling on the floor before Skink’s even administered a shock.

Same basic idea. Just saying that, as I read on, I had a disconcerting sense of these repetitions and echoes which, when combined with the lame-ass ending, couldn’t but help suggesting a falling off in Hiaasen’s fertility.

The decline and fall of American journalism

Another recurring theme is Hiaasen’s laments for the decline of old-style journalism, which have featured in many of his novels and, taken together, form an interesting commentary on the decline and fall of American journalism. Early on the narrator laments a time:

Back in the day when newspapers mattered. (p.25)

As I’ve read Hiaasen’s novels through the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s, many aspects of the society he describes have changed (more drugs, more explicit sex, the internet) but one of these threads is his comments on how journalism and the newspaper industry have changed over that period, consistently for the worse.

The early comments (and because the first novel features a star journalist, his managing editor and other journalists in a busy Miami newspaper, it is stuffed with them) are idealistic. Hiaasen thinks it is journalism’s place to hold corrupt politicians and business-people to account. In the 1990s he laments the advent of accountants who reshaped many American newspapers into money-making machines by cutting back on actual journalism and replacing it with features, competitions and prizes.

Thus Basket Case is narrated by a down-on-his-luck journalist Jack Tagger who boils over with contempt for the ‘smooth yuppie’ Race Maggad III who has bought the traditional, old-school newspaper he (Jack) works for and is only interested in it as a money-making machine. For Jack there’s still something worth fighting for in the idea of a civic-minded journalism which serves its community.

But by the time we come to this novel, in 2010, the fat paparazzo, Bang Abbott, is dealing with hard-nosed editors who are themselves having a hard time competing with the internet. The internet presents two threats:

  1. It is immediate, unlike the creaking, 24-hour delay of hard copy newspapers.
  2. And it is democratic, in the sense that absolutely anyone can photograph or take a video of a newsworthy event and upload it in seconds and it will have gone viral before a journalist has even uncapped their pen or turned on their laptop.

It’s a tiny but interesting detail that the editor of the magazine (National Eye) which is the best customer for Abbott’s sleazy paparazzo photos, is not American but Australian, and that he learned his trade on Fleet Street – the implication being that the British press is much more hard-nosed, business-like and ethic-free than US journalism (pages 106 to 111). Certainly we in Britain have to be reminded from time to time just what corrupt scumbags a lot of our journalism is (e.g. the phone hacking scandal).

Obviously, in the 11 years since this novel came out in 2010, things have got significantly worse for newspapers everywhere and the press in America now faces an existential crisis.

I wonder whether Hiaasen’s laments about the death of journalism continue in his more recent books…

Final thought

In terms of satire, Sick Puppy is maybe Hiaasen’s most effective novel because it really explains the workings of corrupt property development and politicians, and the precise way both interact, doing behind the scenes deals, creaming off money, the arrangements whereby all the politicians involved get payoffs and backhanders, and how the tax-paying public are dazzled by the handful of civic amenities which are used to disguise all of this. The novel is festooned with Hiaasen’s trademark grotesquery and violence and macabre deaths and so on, but it also contains this genuinely fascinating deep dive into how this kind of corruption really works.

By contrast, Star Island is, on the face of it, a satire on the discrepancy between the squeaky clean world of teen pop stars and the reality of drug addiction, nymphomania and bulimia. You could also argue it contains a parallel satire about the gutter values of tabloid newspapers or celebrity magazines, with their endless appetite for photos of celebs in embarrassing or squalid situations and so on.

And yet, it doesn’t dig deep. A leading pop start turns out not to be able to sing and to be a nightmare of drugs and sex. Hmm. Tell me something I didn’t already know. Ditto paparazzi. Everyone knows those magazines are trash and the paps who cater for them are reptiles. I remember Spitting Image satirising tabloid journalists as pigs in suits back in the 1980s.

That’s why I don’t like fiction about these subjects, whether by William Gibson or Carl Hiaasen – simply because the subjects feel old and tired and over-familiar right from the start.


Credit

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010. All references are to the 2012 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

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)

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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