Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2006)

‘Face it, we live in a stinking shitwash of cruelty and greed and rotten manners.’
(Honey Santana, the nature girl of the title, page 264)

Chapter one

Tommy Tigertail was the strong, silent Native American member of the four-strong eco-‘terrorist’ group led by renegade journalist Skip Wiley, who wreaked havoc in Hiaasen’s farcical first novel, Tourist Season. At the end of that novel, Tommy returned to south Florida’s reservation for Seminole Indians to help run their lucrative casinos.

Ten books and 20 years later, Hiaasen’s eleventh comedy crime thriller opens with Tommy’s young nephew, Sammy Tigertail, disposing of the body of a fat, drunk, middle-aged white tourist named Jeter Wilson. Tommy didn’t murder him. He was giving Wilson a tour of the Everglades when the airboat he was driving through some high grass accidentally threw a harmless, non-poisonous banded water snake up onto Wilson’s neck. Such was Wilson’s panic that he thrashed around screaming trying to get the snake off him till he dropped dead of a heart attack.

Knowing that if he contacted the racist authorities, he would immediately be blamed and arrested, Sammy weighted down Wilson’s body, dropped it in a deep point of a canal, drove to meet his half brother Lee, to collect his favourite belongings (including a spiffy Gibson electric guitar), then, rather than return to the reservation (where he might be tracked down by police and so cause trouble for  his community) hitch-hikes off into the boondocks (definition: ‘rough or isolated country.’)

At the start of a completely different storyline, in a trailer in a park not far away, single mum Honey Santana, aged 39 (p.353) explains to her son, Fry, that she’s lost her latest job at the fish market because the boss, Mr Louis Piejack, crept up and grabbed her right breast, whereupon she turned round and hit him with a crab hammer in the nuts.

In mid-explanation she gets a call from a phone sales company, Relentless Inc, based in a disused B-52 hanger in Fort Worth, Texas; specifically from smooth-talking Boyd Shreave, who tries to sell her a property in some new housing development. When Honey Santana, a smart cookie, effortlessly dances round his call, taking the mickey out of him, Shreave forgets the golden rule of telesales (which is never lose your temper), loses his temper and calls Honey ‘a dried-up old skank’.

This shocks sales operatives sitting in the booth next to Boyd, Eugenie Fonda with whom he’s having an affair. Eugenie herself has a colourful backstory. In 1999 she began an affair with a tree trimmer named Van Bonneville, who claimed to have lost his wife in the recent hurricane – until, that is, police found her body, badly beaten around the head and strapped into the seat of their car which had been dumped in the St John’s River. Van Bonneville was convicted of murdering her and the story became notorious, dubbed the ‘Hurricane Homicide’ trial in the press.

Eugenie, at that point going by her real name of Jean Leigh Hill, was offered a publishing deal whereby a ghost writer came down from New York and helped her knock out her account of the story which, titled Storm Ghoul, became a bestseller and netted her half a million dollars. By this point Eugenie had hooked up with a stockbroker who persuaded her to invest it all in shares in a red hot company from Texas named Enron. Two years later went spectacularly bankrupt in one of America’s largest cases of corporate fraud and Eugenie lost everything.

Which is why she now finds herself sitting in a booth in a converted B-52 hanger in Texas, trying to sell people shares in a new property development and having a sexual fling with not particularly appealing Boyd Shreave, more out of boredom than anything else. After ending the call to Honey, Shreave takes a coffee break and wonders if his career has finally hit rock bottom. And indeed, the call had been recorded, his managers listen to it, and fire him.

Meanwhile Honey, fulled by rage against Mr Piejack, men in general and Boyd’s hideous insult in particular, decides she is going to phone back the company, insist on speaking to Shreave’s supervisor, and generally make his life a misery. She discovers the company has one of those number blockers, so she calls her brother, Richard Santana, a journalist in upstate New York, and he uses his databases to quickly ascertain the telecompany’s phone number and give it to Honey, who commences bombarding its switchboard with calls. Eventually she uses the ploy of pretending to be an insurance company which is trying to find a ‘Boyd’ employed by Relentless Inc in order to give him his payout on a crash. The guileless HR person gives Honey Boyd’s full name and address. Right.

As the story has developed we have learned that Honey Santana has mental health issues. To be precise, she has an obsessively vengeful personality, bordering on the bipolar, which is easily triggered, much to the exasperation of her long-suffering son, Fry. The boy’s father is Perry Skinner, a reformed dope smuggler, who Honey fell in love with, got pregnant by, but who was then busted and sent to gaol.

An example of Honey’s obsessiveness is that, while Skinner was in Elgin prison, she wrote him 147 letters, none of them forgiving him for getting busted for drug smuggling (p.230). She once sent the White House 97 emails to complain about the president’s support for a bill to allow oil drilling in an Alaska national park, bringing her to the attention of the Secret Service, who gave her a full assessment and concluded she didn’t pose a threat. They were wrong. Her doctor has prescribed medication, which she throws away. Her long-suffering son, Fry, tries to help and support her but he’s only 12.

Meanwhile, after the novel has described Boyd’s casual flirting with Eugenie it comes as a surprise to learn that he has a wife, Lily Shreave, though less of a surprise to learn that she has hired a private detective, Dealey, to tail him and take incriminating photos of Boyd and his mistress, Eugenie.

We get to know Dealey, hear his backstory, and to understand why he is particularly proud of a long-lens photo he took of Eugenie fellating Boyd in the car park of a takeaway delicatessen. It’s a career best for Dealey, which he sends off to a private investigator magazine who publish it (faces blurred out), much to the admiration of his fellow professionals (p.148). Amusing.

Pause for breath

All this information, the range of characters and their dense backstories, are conveyed in just the first 40 pages of this 400-page book. It’s a lot of information to process, isn’t it?. The bombardment of facts, people and descriptions suggests both Hiaasen’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are:

  • lots of characters, with colourful and varied backgrounds
  • their backstories described in great detail with journalistic concision and precision
  • the certainty that these storylines are set to intersect and the pleasure of trying to figure out how and why
  • extremely crisp and pithy dialogue, brilliantly capturing the characters’ modern, slangy, abbreviated speech rhythms

The main weakness being that all the characters have the shallowness of people mentioned in newspaper articles. You get name, age, weight, hair colour, a bit of backstory, then they’re thrown into the tumultuous pell-mell of farcical events. Close the book, as you would put down a newspaper, and half an hour later you’ve forgotten about them.

There’s precious little psychology. The characters are what they are and mostly stay the same throughout the narrative. The sense you get in each novel of a large cast of well-defined but somehow shallow characters reminds me a bit of the extravagantly large cast of characters in The Simpsons. And just as in The Simpsons, Hiaasen’s novels offer the amusement and comfort of recurring characters (the main ones being the ex-governor and eco-warrior Skink and his trusty side-man, Highway Patrolman Jim Tile; or, as here, rather poignant references to Tommy Tigertail and Skip Wiley from way back in that first novel, p.150).

Characters from the Simpsons cartoon series

Characters from The Simpsons cartoon series

Characters tend to stand out form the general scum if they have one of two qualities:

  • they conform to well-established thriller or Hollywood stereotypes: strong manly heroes like Mick Stranahan, hero of the previous novel, Skinny Dip, or corporate crooks such as Red Hammernut, or preening, cocky but ultimately weak cowards like the would-be wife-killer, Charles Perrone, also from Skinny Dip
  • or they have grotesque qualities or meet a grotesque fate: such as the over-hairy man-bear ‘Tool’ in Skinny Dip, or the assassin in Double Whammy who is bitten by a pitbull whose jaws he can’t unclamp from his arm, even after he’s killed it, even after he’s sawed its head off, and so goes through the rest of the novel with a rotting dog’s head at the end of one arm

I suppose one way of accounting for the grotesque characters or events in Hiaasen (beside them being gruesomely funny in and of themselves) is the way their fictional garishness compensates for the general lack of psychological depth.

Plot developments

Honey Santana

As we read on we encounter Honey Santana’s back story. We learn about her impulsive marriage to a working man ten years older than her, Perry Skinner, dope smuggler, who discovers her wearing a prom dress by the side of the road next to the car where her drunken teenage prom date was busy throwing up (pages 121 to 123). Skinner took her away, they fell in love, he got busted for smuggling dope and served a few years inside, and was surprised to find Honey waiting for him when he got out (p.230). They got married, they had a son Fry and then her mental disorder, some kind of bipolar condition, never officially defined (her ‘manic spirals’), became steadily worse, till they parted by mutual consent.

One among the many symptoms her son has learned to recognise is when Honey can barely hear anything around her because of the deafening noise going on in her head, ‘the rising babel in Honey’s skull’ (p.171), being combinations of multiple pop music tracks playing inside her head at the same time (for example, ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ at the same time as ‘Karma Chamelon’, p.125, or a disco track and CSN’s ‘Marrakesh Express’, p.82, Smoke on the Water and ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’, p.170, Nat King Cole and Marilyn Manson, p.214).

(It’s noteworthy that Hiaasen had used this riff in the previous novel, Skinny Dip, where Skink, his most frequent recurring character, was having exactly the same problem, of hearing two loud and catchy pop tunes playing inside his head at the same time. I wonder whether the repeat of this idea is an indication that Hiaasen himself suffered from a similar condition. Or just the repetition of quite a good bizarre character angle. Odd that he uses it in two consecutive books, though, as if we wouldn’t notice.)

Honey conceives a Cunning Plan to take revenge on Boyd Shreave. Once she’s got his phone number  she rings him at home, herself pretending to be a real estate salesperson with the made-up name Pia Frampton (p.170). She spins him a line about how lucky buyers will get an all-expenses paid trip to stay in a wildlife lodge in Florida (remember that Boyd, Mrs Boyd and Eugenie all live up in Texas) and gets Boyd hooked. He thinks a city break for 2 in Florida is just what he needs to restart his relationship with Eugenie.

Eugenie

For her part Eugenie has already moved on and has seduced a new guy at work, Sacco, who she gets back to her flat and naked but he won’t stop talking about his obsessions with Bill Gates and Microsoft, so she’s becoming exasperated which is exactly when Boyd knocks on the door with a bunch of flowers and the offer of an all-expenses paid trip to Florida. Eugenie thinks, Well, why not?

Honey’s scam and Richard’s airmiles

So now Honey has suckered Boyd to think he’s going on an all-expenses-paid weekend break to a luxury Florida hotel, how is (slightly demented) Honey going to arrange all this? First the air tickets. She phones her successful journalist brother and persuades him to part with enough airmiles to pay for the  2 American Airlines tickets which she sends to Boyd.

As to the hotel, well, er… She lies to her son, Fry, that she’s got friends coming to stay and paints her double-wide trailer amateurish pictures of macaws and tropical foliage. Ha! Then she gets the boy’s father, Skinner, to take him for a few days, and sits back to wait for Boyd and Eugenie to arrive and their ritual humiliation to begin.

Lily and Dealey

Complicating things nicely is Boyd’s wife, Lily. Lily has all the evidence she needs that Boyd is being unfaithful, but flabbergasts the private investigator, Dealey, by telling him a photo of her husband getting a blowjob in a car park is not enough. She wants a photo of actual penetration. Dealey starts to protest but Lily says she’ll pay him $10,000 cash for it. She is good for the money because she runs a little chain of pizza parlours which she is on the brink of selling to a larger chain for a big figure plus stock options.

So, very reluctantly, Dealey establishes what flight Boyd and Eugenie are getting, books himself onto it, and sets off on his quest to take a photo of them unambiguously having penetrative sex for his client.

Boyd’s excuses

What lies is Boyd going to tell Lily to excuse his absence for a couple of days? He comes up with the story that he is not only still employed by Relentless Inc. but is their star salesman, but, alas, has only just been diagnosed with the very rare condition of aphenphosmphobia (page 122) which means he can’t bear to be touched. So work are going to send him to Florida to visit a clinic which may be able to cure his sad condition.

Lily knows he’s lying and so sets out to torment him, by presenting herself in sexually alluring guises i.e. in bra and panties, in skimpy thongs, and in one memorably pornographic scene, tells Boyd to sit on the sofa, close his eyes, and focus on the fact that she is not wearing any panties (p.132) to focus on her pussy, imagine her shape, the outline of her vulva against her tight jeans in its ‘velvet detail’… then Boyd hears the sound of her slipping out of her jeans and he opens her eyes to see his wife’s naked pussy only yards from him as he nurses what is by now a rearing and straining erection.

But now he’s come up with this preposterous phobia story, he has to stick to it and resist even Lily’s crudest advances. Comedy of a not particularly subtle type.

Sammy and Ginny

Remember how we left Sammy Tigertail canoeing deeper and deeper into the Florida Everglades? He’s not a very competent Indian, much though he wants to emulate his heroic Seminole ancestors. We learn that Sammy’s daddy was a white truck driver who impregnated an Indian woman but, when he was born, took him away to live with him and his white stepmom. They brought him up as a white boy named ‘Chad McQueen’ in the suburb of Broward, till the old guy died from a heart attack on a friend’s stag night, whereupon his Indian mom reclaimed him and took him to live in the Indian community of Big Cypress.

But the rest of the Indian community regarded him as not part of it, both on account of his half-white parentage and also that he seems to be endlessly unlucky (p.163). Sammy thinks of himself as ‘a fucked-up half-breed’ (p.286); ‘I’m only half Seminole… My father was white’ (p.309) and the narrator agrees he is dogged by ‘chronic bad luck’, (p.330).

Above all, Sammy is self-conscious and sensitive about his bright blue eyes, a permanent reminder that he is not pure-blood Indian (p.331).

Proving his bad luck, while he sleeps on an island that first night on the run, a high tide washes away his canoe. But then he hears noises coming from the other side of the island, sneaks over and discovers a fraternity party of students dancing to a boogie box round a campfire, stoned and drunk.

When they’ve all eventually passed out, Sammy tiptoes round to their canoes and starts to steal one. But he is stopped by a voice from among the comatose bodies, a girl’s voice, asking if she can come with him. It belongs to a girl whose name we will discover is Gillian St Croix.

Just as Honey’s prom night date turned out to be useless all those years ago, now this girl, Gillian St Croix (full name p.141; fully backstory p.172), also wants to get away from the lame man who brought her to the island, Ethan.

— Useless men. This is a recurring theme. Pieback, Boyd and Dealey are sorry apologies for masculinity and their womenfolk have correspondingly low opinions of the male sex.

‘One time a guy almost croaked on me in bed,’ [Eugenie] was saying. ‘Lucky I’d passed a CPR class. I kept him goin’ till the paramedics got there, and guess what? He still had his hard-on when they carried him out on the stretcher – that’s all you need to know about men.’ (p.277)

Sammy whispers no way is he going to take her, but Gillian threatens to scream and wake her comatose student buddies up, so, with massive reluctance, Sammy puts her in the canoe, stops once safe round round the headland, then fires a few shots of the rifle to wake the dopey students up, making them panic and hurriedly dress and head off in the remaining canoes.

Which leaves Sammy stuck with Gillian, who turns out to be an incredibly irritating chatterbox, who only stops wittering on when Sammy ties her hands and stuffs a sock in her mouth. But not for long. He paddles blindly for a while, having no compass or map of familiarity with this area, eventually arriving at a remote island called Dismal Key (p.136), though neither of them know it.

Clearly the four storylines of:

  1. Honey Santana setting up Body Shreave for some merciless humiliation at her trailer in Florida
  2. private detective Dealey’s attempts to photograph Boyd and Eugenie in flagrante
  3. Tommy Tigertail and his annoying ‘kidnap’ victim, Gillian, who refuses to leave him alone
  4. Perry Skinner and his son Fry

are going to crash into each other and create all kinds of comic complications. Nature Girl is very well written, elaborately structured, with detailed characterisation, snappy dialogue, vivid imagining of the exotic and outlandish scenes and settings. But somehow, hard to nail down, it lacks the really vehement outrageousness of the earlier novels.

Native American themes

All Hiaasen’s novels are interspersed with factual interludes giving backgrounders on the big issue of the novel. If they were in magazines, they’d be in call-out boxes or side panels, separate from the main text. In the previous novel, Skinny Dip, there were 3 or 4 of them explaining how the runoff of fertilisers and pesticides from vast agricultural landholdings were allowed to illegally leach into the Everglades and destroy their ecosystems.

In this novel we get a series of interludes giving factual background about native American tribes, namely the Seminole nation, which Sammy belongs to (pages 72, 152, 286), also background history of the Calusa people who inhabited Florida at the time of the Spanish conquest and who were decimated by European diseases (pages 202 to 203).

Native American themes are present in other ways throughout the book:

1. Sammy has vivid dreams, dreams in which spirits appear and talk to him, most notably dreams in which the spirit of the dead white man Jeter Wilson appears to him and complains about being weighted down with anchors in some canal where the water’s cold and he’s being bitten to pieces by sharks. In these dreams Wilson angrily asks Sammy to come back and move his body. Later, when Dealey pitches up on the island where Sammy’s taken Gillian, Sammy refuses to believe he’s real, considering him a spirit throughout all their interactions, which is both comic and genuinely a bit spooky. Thus Sammy’s dreams are so vivid that at several points he mistakes people, for example Gillian when she first speaks, for spirits talking to him.

2. Dismal Key turns out to be largely constructed of clam shells by the Indian tribes who lived in this part of Florida for over a thousand years, the Calusa people (p.175) and the story of how they dominated the area but were then wiped out by the diseases brought by the Spanish invaders is not only tragic, but also spooky. For Sammy, their long-gone presence still weighs heavily on his mind.

3. Sammy is also haunted by the memory of his great-great-great-grandfather, Chief Thlocklo Tustenuggee, tricked into signing a treaty with the white man then thrown into prison.

Manifest destiny, otherwise known as screwing native peoples out of their homelands, had been a holy crusade among white people of that era. (p.361)

4. One of these factual callout boxes explains the rise of the casinos and gambling empires which native Americans have built on their reservations to sucker gambling-addicted white folks out of their money (p.357), Many Indians have become very wealthy this way, Sammy describes them as the ‘new Arabs’ in terms of mushroom wealth. Sammy’s uncle Tommy, who we met way back in Hiaasen’s debut novel, is credited with being one of the architects of the Seminole nation’s rise to enormous wealth.

Once written off as a ragged band of heathens, the Seminole Nation grew into a formidable corporate power with its own brigade of lawyers and lobbyists. (p.357)

5. On a personal level, Gillian and Sammy spend a lot of time together and their conversation repeatedly rotates around the issue of ‘race’, her teasing him about having white girlfriends, he very self-conscious of his half-white heritage, determined not to submit to what his uncle calls white pussy’. Whenever  we enter Sammy’s storyline, the word ‘white’ recurs almost continually, and white people don’t come out well in Sammy’s worldview:

The first white person to betray Sammy Tigertail had been his stepmother… The second white person to betray him had been Cindy, his ex-girlfriend… (p.356)

The book bangs on, again and again, that you can’t trust white people and you can’t trust men, impeccably woke anti-men and anti-white attitudes but, as so often, expressed, without a shred of irony, by a…er… white man.

Nature Girl can may be considered Hiaasen’s novel about native Americans (in Florida), their history and current plight (Sammy’s mixed-blood heritage symbolises the way they’re caught between dying notions of their old culture and their full absorption into the capitalist white world) in maybe the same way that Lucky You is his novel about black people, with its feisty black heroine JoLayne and its pair of repellent white supremacists, Bode Gazzer and Chub, whose beliefs, values and temperaments are systematically ripped to shreds. (Note, again, the same tendency of the characterisations in Lucky You: black woman clever and good; white men very bad and very stupid.)

I’m not criticising or damning Hiaasen for the way the themes of race and gender run very loud through his novels. I’m just pointing out how their prominence reflects how dominant they have become in an American society which, over the period he’s been writing in (1986 to the present), he himself is the first to point out has become utterly dysfunctional through the triumph of greed and selfishness, the disappearance of manners and kindness.

In my opinion the two phenomena are connected, and represent twin aspects of a culture and society becoming ever-more putrid. Funny reading about it, but I wouldn’t want to live there, amid the ever-increasing inequality, violence and cultural disintegration.

Highlights of the rest of the novel

Boyd and Eugenie fly down to Florida and catch a cab to the address on the holiday brochure Honey has knocked up and mailed them. You can imagine that they are vastly disillusioned to arrive at Honey’s badly painted trashy trailer and discover that this is the destination of their supposed dream holiday. Eugenie is all for turning round and going straight back to the airport but a) it is now late at night b) it is raining c) Boyd is a cheapskate and despite the obvious crappiness of the situation, insists that they accept Honey’s ‘welcome’ and put up for the night in the trailer’s none -too-clean double bed.

Meanwhile, the private investigator Dealey had been on the same flight as Boyd and Eugenie and trailed them to this trailer park. He is loitering outside Honey’s trailer and is just peeking through a window, when he is surprised from behind by a guy with a shotgun. It turns out to be Mr Piejack from the fish market. He’s in bad shape. Not only did Honey hit him in the nuts with a crab-cracking hammer, but a day later some Latinos turned up and forced Piejack’s hand into a basket of angry live crabs. His screams brought colleagues and then paramedics who hammer the crabs off his fingers, but many of them are clinging onto his fingers. I.e. the fingers of his right hand are all severed. Paramedics rush Piejack to a hospital where an incompetent surgeon sews them back onto the wrong stumps, his thumb being reattached to his little finger stump.

There’s generally one major grotesque incident in a Hiaasen novel and this is it, the case of the wrongly sewn-on fingers. Despite this grotesque mishap, Piejack is more sexually obsessed by Honey than ever (backstory about PIejack, his fishy career and miserable marriage pages 248 to 250). Piejack takes Dealey off at gunpoint…

Next morning, Honey tells Boyd and Eugenie that the next part of the ‘holiday’ is packing some bags and going kayaking along nearby waterways, which Eugenie is rightly suspicious of, but Boyd insists they play along. Truth is Honey doesn’t know exactly where she is going and they kayak badly for a few hours till they arrive at an island in the middle of nowhere.

Little are they to know that this is the exact same island where Sammy Tigertail has brought irritating Gillian, who won’t stop talking, who keeps teasing Sammy about her whiteness, who keeps provoking him with her semi-nudity and asking why he won’t ‘bone’ her.

So that’s two of the groups of characters on the island. The third set consist of the sex-obsessed Piejack and Dealey. Having kept him under guard all night, next morning Pijack forces Dealey to accompany him as they drive to a boat hire place, rent a powerboat and set off to follow Honey and her two luckless kayakers to the unknown island.

Piejack and Dealey are able pick them up using binoculars, then trail them at a distance so as not to be seen and moor their boat on the other side of the island. Things quickly go wrong when Piejack, in the middle of threatening Dealey, is whacked from behind by Sammy, falling into a dense cactus patch. Sammy thinks he’s killed Piejack (damn! the second white man he’s killed in just a few days!) and takes Dealey off with him, poor Dealey, as one character comments, maybe the only person in history to be kidnapped twice in one day!

But that’s not all. The fourth component is Honey’s ex-husband Perry Skinner, the crab fisherman. That morning he spotted Piejack driving with a stranger through the streets of Everglade City (the tiny rural community where Honey and Perry live), realises something is up, quickly picks up his son, and takes out his crabbing boat to pursue Piejack and Dealey in their boat, at a safe distance.

And thus the narrative brings all four sets of characters – Sammy and Gillian; Honey, Boyd and Eugenie; Piejack and Dealey; Perry and his son – to the same remote, mosquito-infested island, with what blurb writers would call ‘hilarious consequences’.

What ensues is almost textbook farce, with a complex series of comings and goings, encounters, violence, threats, running away, and the couples splitting up and partnering off with someone from another pair, comic misunderstandings and confrontations.

It could almost be performed onstage as a Feydeau farce, set in one big room with multiple doors, and characters entering in various combinations, having comical mishaps before exiting and another little set of characters entering to perform their comic scene. The fact that it’s set on an island with four sets of characters and a lot of rueful comedy reminded me a little of The Tempest.

Among a welter of incidents, Boyd, the soulless lunkhead, manages to tazer his own penis. (He thinks it’s a gun and shoves it down his pants like a tough guy only for it to go off accidentally. Men, eh?)

At one point Sammy is confronted in the middle of the day with dead Mr Wilson’s spirit, whining about being stuck in the cold water and eaten by sharks. To get rid of it Sammy shoots his rifle but the bullet ricochets off a tree and hits Dealey, shattering his shoulder. He collapses, loses consciousness, the women tend him but he’s in a poor way.

In other scenes, Gillian wears Sammy down with her incessant chatter till he gives up and agrees to have sex with her, which mainly involves her vigorously riding his erection while continuing her endless chatter.

Boyd demonstrates in a hundred ways what a selfish, useless, spineless, soulless goon he is. Honey had arranged this whole scam in order to get Boyd into the back of beyond and then deliver a lecture about his bad morals and behaviour re. his rude telesales phone call to her which is where the entire narrative began.

And yet, when it comes to it, nothing works. As dawn rises the day after they came to the island, Honey marvels at the change in the quality of the light, the calmness of the water, the beauty of a flight of egrets across the sky. Boyd doesn’t get it, and announces he needs to have a crap.

The man was unreachable, a dry hole. For such a lunkhead there could be no awakening, no rebirth of wonderment. (p.296)

On one level the novel is simply about a mentally ill woman who tries to reform a soulless dolt and fails, leaving her feeling ‘foolhardy and defeated, the queen of lost causes’ (p.297). (By the way, Honey appears to be the ‘nature girl’ of the title.)

On day one on the island Sammy had snuck up on Piejack while the latter was pointing his shotgun at Dealey and whacked him real hard. Piejack was out for a long time, finally came to and crawled off to hide in a cistern tank where he fell on cactus, managing to get covered in prickles. Also a colony of fire ants discovers the juicy food of his recently transplanted fingers under the surgical gauze.

Thus he awakes on the second day on the island looking like a drooling, demented walking puffer fish ‘benumbed by the derangement of lust’ (p.302). He has metamorphosed into the Grotesque Figure who can be found in most of Hiaasen’s novels (cf Chemo, Tool etc al.) Piejack stumbles across Honey alone in her camp and kidnaps her, fitting a noose round her neck and dragging her off into the undergrowth.

Meanwhile, a coast guard helicopter arrives. Dealey had phoned for it with the last power in his cell phone.

Perry Skinner, who, despite his former prison sentence, emerges as the strong, manly hero of the book, doesn’t want to leave the island till he’s found his ex-wife, Honey, who he still loves. On the other hand he’s sort of in charge of the good guys and knows that Dealey is badly wounded by Sammy’s shot to his shoulder and so needs to be choppered out.

So he and Gillian and Sammy put Dealey’s half-conscious body into one of the brightly coloured kayaks and push it out into the main body of water where the coastguard quickly see it. Unfortunately, as the chopper hovers low, Dealey tries to stand up to signal to it and promptly capsizes the kayak, flailing in the water and likely to drown. So Gillian quickly strips to her mesh panties (for the umpteenth time) and swims out to save him. So she and Dealey are winched to safety by the coastguard chopper which flies away. Shame. Sammy was just starting to like her.

In another part of the island, Eugenie had been tending Skinner’s son, Fry, who is only 12 and managed to hit a truck while skateboarding before his dad collected him and brought him on this wild goose chase to some remote island in the Everglades.

Here, Fry has begun to suffer symptoms of concussion and gotten separated from his dad (I told you it’s a labyrinthine series of people getting split up, lost, encountering people from the other groups, with or without guns).

Fry has just fainted and been discovered by Eugenie, who is tending him when they both hear the Coast Guard chopper. Fry tells her not to worry about him and go and so, reluctantly, Eugenie runs off in the direction of the creek where the Coast Guard has spotted Dealey flailing round his kayak and Gillian swimming out to save him.

The narrative then cuts away to a factual account of the precise make and number of Coast Guard patrol, and explains how it had been called to the island after Dealey rang Lily Shreave (his client, remember; the one who sent him to get photos of Boyd actually penetrating Eugenie), describes how he has been kidnapped and brought to some godforsaken island in the ‘Glades. Lily rang the coastguard. Hence the helicopter.

Anyway, the net result is that by page 320 Eugenie, Gillian and Dealey have been choppered back to civilisation.

Leaving Sammy Tigertail and Perry Skinner and the latter’s ill son, Fry, looking for the gruesomely maimed pervert Piejack and Honey, who he’s kidnapped and is leading around on a leash, with the cowardly Boyd blundering around as a kind of wild card.

There is no subtlety about the characterisation. The narrator describes Boyd as a drooling moron, explaining to the reader at factual length what a GPS tracker is and why Boyd had to be an imbecile not to realise what it was and to mistake it for a radio (p.322). And he tazered his own penis.

Sorry apologies for men

Hiaasen’s novels usually have a central topic which is the butt of his factual exposures and satirical flaying. About half way through this book I began to wonder whether the subject being flayed in this one is men and masculinity. Boyd the useless creep. Piejack the pervert. Dealey the craven investigator. The narrative marshals a long list of evidence against men.

Eugenie remembers her former lover, Van Bonneville, who was useless the one and only time they had sex, and then didn’t get any better in the sack after she discovered he had murdered his wife.

We get a vivid scene where Eugenie tries to seduce Boyd’s replacement at the telesales centre, Sacco, who turns out to be a knock-kneed obsessive.

The text keeps up a steady barrage of criticism of the entire male gender, either via the narrator or the no-holds-barred comments of all the female characters:

Honey’s outlook on men was sinking to a point of abject revulsion. The day was new, and yet already she’d been ridiculed by a soulless twit and kidnapped by a reeking pervert. (p.304)

‘Don’t ever change,’ [Eugenie tells Fry]. ‘By that I mean don’t grow up to be a jerkoff like ninety percent of the men I meet.’
‘Mom always tells me the same thing, except she says it’s more like ninety-five.’ (p.307)

‘Don’t be a typical dumb-ass male and get yourself lost in the woods.’ (p.318)

Even the natural world is roped in to make the point. When Fry points out two chameleons on a branch to Eugenie he explains that the one puffing out its chest and doing what look like little press-ups is the male doing a mating dance.

‘That’s the male,’ said Fry. ‘He’s showin’ off.’
‘Go figure,’ said Eugenie. (p.316)

I wonder if an author wrote a book in which characters said 95% of the black people they met were jerkoffs, black people show off all the time, one character told another not to be a typical dumb-ass black, and so on – I wonder whether sweeping abuse and insults about blacks or Jews or Muslims would be seen as quite so funny as sweeping insults and abuse of white men.

When the narrative stops to reflect on the five men Honey dated after divorcing Perry, it’s really just another opportunity to give examples of piss-poor men, namely:

  • Dale Rozelle, ‘a duplicitous shithead’, who lies about being a member of the Sierra Club in order to get into Honey’s pants (or get her to ‘give up the velvet’), slaps his own bum and makes barnyard noises during sex (now there’s something I must try out :)).
  • Dr Tyler Teehorn, her son’s orthodontist, who she gives a ‘mercy fuck’ after his wife left him, but who then clings to her like a mollusc and is a suffocating bore.

When the Coast Guard helicopter appears, Hiaasen makes a joke of the way the routine rescue of a fat white guy in a kayak is transformed when the crew see a nubile woman strip virtually naked (down to just her mesh panties, for it is Gillian) and another hottie waving brightly coloured underwear at them (Eugenie). These sights invigorate the male rescuers, lending them, in the sardonic tones of the narrator, ‘unbreakable focus and esprit de corps‘ (p.323).

Gillian went on, ‘Ethan doesn’t really care about me. It’s just the sex.’
‘Well, he’s a boy.’
‘Why are they all like that?’ (p.364)

Men, eh. Do anything for the promise of poon. Pathetic. In the last hundred pages I collected adjectives used to describe men: lame (345) sonofabitches (351) bores (325), shitheads (324), schmucks, bumblefucks (343), sexual harassers (344), sex fiends (347), toads (352), dumb-ass drooling morons (322), brutish criminals (350) and rancid buckets of scum (347).

Admittedly most of this abuse is targeted at Piejack, the gangrenous, drug-addled, sex-obsessed stalker, but then he was invented precisely to be the butt of this torrent of anti-male abuse. And is unsubtly contrasted with the sterling qualities of the three female leads: confident knows-what-she-wants Gillian; tall, sexy Eugenie; and Honey, the nature girl who wanted to reform slimy Boyd Shreaver, who is a super-devoted loving mother to young Fry, and is ‘tough and outspoken and damn near fearless’ (p.355). Shit men, heroic women.

It’s a tiny comic detail when the Coast Guard tells Gillian that the single most common name men gave their dinghies and boats in Florida is Wet Dream (p.338). Ha ha. Men and their dicks and their dumb-ass sense of humour, eh.

One last thought: it isn’t a new theme for Hiaasen. Reviewing my notes on Strip Tease, I see that that novel, also, as you’d expect from a text all about the ‘erotic dancing’ industry, was crammed full of dismissive comments about men and their desperation for pussy.

  • ‘Men will try anything,’ Monique Jr said, sceptically. ‘Anything for pussy.’ (Strip Tease, page 16)
  • It taught Erin one of life’s great lessons: an attractive woman could get whatever she wanted, because men are so laughably weak. They would do anything for even the distant promise of sex. (p.26)
  • Erin was constantly reminded of the ridiculous power of sex; routine female nakedness reduced some men to stammering, clammy-fingered fools. (p.87)

Is this general statement true of men in the real world? Is it true for all men even just in Carl Hiaasen’s novels? Or is it a kind of satirical trope, the kind of predictable, fixed parameter which then enables savage satire to be written, alongside other generalisations such as all white people are racist, all politicians are corrupt, all property developers are evil, and so on.

In other words they are conventions of the genre. Certainly having read a dozen or so Restoration comedies a while ago, and then a set of Ben Jonson’s citizen comedies, sex and, more precisely, the sex-obsession of some men has always been a theme of comedy, and is cranked up to the max in the over-driven form of comedy which is farce.

The climax – Skinner kills Piejack

The climax of the novel comes when Skinner and Sammy come into a beach clearing to discover lurid, ill Piejack threatening Honey with the shotgun and ordering her to strip. Honey’s son, Fry, who got separated from his dad some time back, has snuck up behind Piejack and hits him with a plank but Piejack recovers and points the shotgun at both Fry and Honey.

Seeing this from the trees, Skinner goes running forward but Piejack shoots him in the knee, forcing him to flop to the sand. That just leaves Sammy, still standing on the edge of the clearing, witness to the entire scene, who has to make a choice. In his head he hears his wise uncle saying this is all white people craziness and  that he should walk away, and Piejack points the gun at him and tells him to do just that.

Now, among his personal belongings which his half-brother Lee had brought him to take into the boondocks right at the start of the story, was a lovely Gibson guitar (which he can’t actually play, although Gillian turns out to be able to play it).

Now Sammy sees the guitar has gotten tossed to one side of the beach and politely asks Piejack if he can retrieve it. He walks across with Piejack keeping the shotgun aimed at him, picks up the guitar walks a few paces but then, unexpectedly, hands it to Skinner, still on his knees. Skinner labours to his feet, staggers forward and, as Piejack shoots him, brings the guitar down like an axe and cleaves Piejack’s skull in two.

Postscript

So that’s the end of the jeopardy which had been driving the plot for the previous 100 pages. Now there’s just tying up the loose ends.

We are told Piejack’s last shot blew away part of Skinner’s hip and he is bleeding badly. Honey and Fry carry him to Piejack’s hire boat and she charts a course back to the dock at Everglades City and tells Fry to run as fast as the wind to get help and call an ambulance.

Sammy Tigertail loads Piejack’s corpse into a different boat and chugs back to the canal where he sank the body of Jeter Wilson. He does the same to Piejack’s corpse, stringing it with weights and dumping it in the same deep underwater hole. Almost immediately he starts seeing Jeter Wilson’s death spirit appearing to him, complaining about his new companion.

All this leaves flabby Boyd the coward still on the island. He had climbed up a huge poinciana tree to escape from the general mayhem and from up there he’d tried to the Coast Guard helicopter, though the pilots were, as Hiaasen emphasises, totally entranced when they saw the prospect of picking up not one but two scantily clad women.

When he hears the two shots Piejack fires, Boyd heads off in the opposite direction, eventually hitting another beach and discovering an untended canoe. He quickly sets off but is, of course, useless at paddling, plus night is falling.

In the middle of the night he hears a boat passing nearby and shines a small torch he has, but it is only Sammy in a powerboat towing the body of Piejack and the rest of the canoes, and he flips Boyd the bird, and putters off, leaving Boyd literally all at sea.

The First Resurrectionist Maritime Assembly for God

Then there is a weird comic afterlude. Boyd comes to a beach and finds himself landing on another island. Much earlier in the story Perry and Fry, in search of Honey, had briefly landed on this island and discovered it was being used as a retreat by a small group of revivalist Christians, to be precise, five members of the First Resurrectionist Maritime Assembly for God wearing only white gowns (p.371).

It had already been hinted that these folk are not as pure as they claim to be and, sure enough, Boyd staggers out of his canoe onto the beach and interrupts the Assembly’s leader, Brother Manual, gripping Sister Shirelle by the hips and boning her enthusiastically from behind. Hiaasen points out that Sister Shirelle’s formidable and unbound breasts are jouncing in tandem, which is good to know.

There follows an unexpected passage of broad, farcical satire, as Manuel and Shirelle hurriedly make themselves decent and greet Boyd (almost naked, with hands bloodied from climbing up then back down the big poinciana tree) as the Promised One and the Messiah. For a few days they devout Bible bashers worship, feed and water him. But Boyd turns out to be an obnoxious whiner and even the most deluded devotees quickly lose faith. The congregation depart the island leaving him with a few rations but no canoe.

Boyd is leaning back against the big cross the Assembly had erected on the beach in bleak despair when a huge wild eagle lands on its top and takes a big dump on him. Comedy.

He runs into the sea to wash himself and makes such a racket and commotion that he is spotted and picked up by Coastal Rangers out on patrol, returned to civilisation, hosed down, dressed in charity clothes.

Boyd‘s storyline comes to a savagely farcical conclusion when, thus tidied up, he is enjoying a few beers in a local bar when he overhears some tourists from up north fantasising about moving to the Sunshine State. Boyd smoothly introduces himself as the agent for some (totally fictional) prime beachfront properties and realises with a flash that this is the role which suits his worthless, soulless, slimeball character – he will be an estate agent in Florida!

Eugenie, Sammy and Skinner

Talking of agents, Eugenie quits her job in telesales and presents herself at the office of private investigator Dealey, now much restored after an operation to repair his shot-up shoulder.

Eugenie suggests that, after all the fuss and bother, they send Boyd’s wife, Lily, not a video of Boyd and herself boning, but a video she shot during the brief time she spent with young Fry, a sequence of two chameleons copulating on a tree branch. (Right till the end of this book, ‘boning’ in one form or another is the central subject.) Impressed by her confidence, sales skills and insights into relationships, Dealey decides to take her on as a partner in his detective agency.

Sammy finds peace on another island. He had recovered some parts of the smashed Gibson guitar after it was used to brain Piejack, and starts whittling a new body from treewood. He fishes, cooks and eats, lies under the huge sprawl of night-time stars. The same great eagle which shat on Boyd comes and roosts in the trees every evening. Sammy begins to think of him as a guardian spirit. Slowly, we get the sense of him becoming attuned to the wilderness and the simple life of his ancestors. A fairly happy ending.

And Skinner and Honey get back together. Her jaw is clamped shut while it heals from an almighty whack Piejack gave it back on the island which broke it, and Skinner is walking with a cane while his new artificial hip beds in, so they decided to move back in together and look after each other.

Twelve-and-a-half-year-old Fry is anxious that they’ll just end up arguing and splitting up again. But the novel ends with a symbolic scene. Once again Fry and Honey are sitting at dinner (with Skinner) when the phone rings. Honey gets irate about dinner being interrupted, just as she did at the very start of the novel.

However, both Fry and Skinner tell her to let it ring, let it go. It’s hard for such an obsessive, but Honey takes their advice and eventually it stops. People don’t really change, but they can learn new tricks. The book ends with the happy family joking together over dinner.

Construction

It should be obvious from this detailed summary that this novel, like all Hiaasen’s novels, is wonderfully constructed, the multiple storylines and the complex backstories of its large-ish cast of characters beautifully dovetailed and woven together by a master carpenter. He is an absolute master of narrative construction, it’s one of the most impressive things about his books.

More sex than previously

It might just be me, but it seemed to me that sex – almost pornographically explicit imaginings of naked pussies and willies, and jokey references to cocks and fannies and thongs and bras and breasts and vibrators – is far more present in this novel than any of the previous ones.

‘I’d blow Dick Cheney for a Corona,’ she said. (p.225)

We are casually told Eugenie loves straddling Boyd’s cock and was, indeed, starting to do the same to his replacement, Sacco, when the front door rings. Lily tries repeatedly to provoke Boyd into having sex with her, wearing thongs, straddling him, slipping under the table at a restaurant, unzipping his flies and starting to suck his cock. Later in the story, they haven’t been together long before irritating Gillian (see below) is presenting herself to Sammy Tigertail in ‘mesh panties and a white bikini top’ (p.163) to arouse him.

‘White pussy is bad medicine.’ (Tommy Tigertail, p.142)

All three of the women in the book – Honey, Eugenie and Gillian – are not only described as attractive:

  • ‘Sammy Tigertail had never seen a woman so lovely’ as Honey (p.290)
  • when the Coast Guard appear at the end of the story it is to rescue ‘two extremely attractive female evacuees’ (p.323)
  • Honey is ‘athletically built’ (p.358)

But are impressively sexually active. They are tall and shapely, with nice boobs (Eugenie has ‘outstanding breasts’, in Fry’s opinion, p.316), are continually slipping into thongs and mesh panties, offering blowjobs at the drop of a hat.

I know these are comic, escapist poolside paperbacks, but there does seem to be a more than usually amount of male wish fulfilment in this one.

Eugenie chuckled tiredly. ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get off this island, and that includes hand jobs, blow jobs, butt jobs, even singin’ opera stark naked.’ (p.279)

When Sammy stumbles late at night into the little camp Honey, Eugenie and Boyd have made, he accidentally wakens Eugenie, who begs him for water, since they’re all thirsty. And she immediately offers to anything – ‘I’ll do whatever you want. And I mean whatever‘. She is, after all, very proud of her metal tongue stud and the pleasure it gives the men she fellates.

I suppose Eugenie leaping immediately to offer sex at every opportunity is meant to be a comic part of her over-sexed character.  But they’re all obsessed with sex, Piejack and Boyd and Lily, who is obsessed with seeing photos of her husband penetrating another woman, and Gillian uses every opportunity to propose sex to her handsome half-Indian abductor:

‘Meanwhile, Big Chief Thlocko, let me show you what my people call a “quickie”.’ (p.310)

Even the comic details have a more than usually sexual tinge: for example, part of Boyd’s general uselessness is the way he once had a domestic accident in such a way as to straddle a cactus and get his entire groin studded with painful cactus needles (p.341).

When they get to Dismal Island Boyd brandishes the implement he found under Honey’s bed and which he takes to be a gun, swirling it round his hand before sticking it back in his pants, like a tough guy with a revolver, only for it to jolt him with a phenomenal electric shock because it was not a gun but a taser; leaving him with ‘a half-barbecued cock’ (p.239).

We are told that the PI Dealey has only ever been subject to violence once in his career and, you could imagine thousands of forms this could take, but it is entirely in line with the book’s focus on sex that this attack took the shape of the woman he was illicitly photographing as part of a snooping job, spotting him and throwing her nine inch vibrator at him. (It hit him directly in the throat and he couldn’t speak for three weeks, p.196.)

‘Damn, boy, you could be quite the rock star… All the free poon and dope you can stand.’ (p.226)

When Boyd and Eugenie are paddling a two-person canoe, Boyd is so useless that Eugenie wants him to stop altogether. There are many ways she could do this, starting with using the gift of speech. Instead, it’s very much in line with the soft porn vibe of the book, that she prefers to express this wish by taking off her halter top so as to be topless. This appearance of her boobs distracts Boyd so much that he stops paddling alright, but it also… continues the tone of titillation which colours the whole text.

When Skinner and Fry come ashore on a remote island attracted by a fire on the beach, they discover it is in fact a small group of Christian zealots holding an unorthodox act of worship. The point is the narrator draws our attention to the fact that the prettiest one, Shirelle is dancing and gyrating without a bra… and when the leader of the congregation follows them to give them a leaflet, Skinner angrily confronts him with the shrewd guess that he has ‘balled’ Sister Shirelle, that she has kneeled down and worshipped him in a very special way (p.258). And, as we’ve seen, at the end of the book Boyd interrupts the group’s leader in the act of energetically boning Shirelle from behind. Of the religious devotee Sister Shirelle, not only do we learn that her big breasts jounce joyfully around but that, in Brother Manuel’s opinion, she would ‘go down on Judas Iscariot if he was a hottie’ (p.385).

And the entire character of Mr Piejack, the lecherous manager of the fish market who fires Honey after he grabs her breast as she’s placing fresh wahoo steaks on display, such that she turns round and hammers in the nuts (p.232), he is nothing more than sexual obsession personified. He goes to ridiculous lengths to try and see Honey nude and/or touch her, he is a slavering stalker, who’s played for laughs, but is also one more strand of the novel’s sex-obsession. When he abducts Honey, he says he’ll only turn her loose if she promises to ‘give up the velvet’ in a particularly creepy and repellent way (p.304).

Eventually, Gillian (the ‘rambunctious college girl in mesh panties’, p.394) wears Sammy down and he gives in to having sex with her, which is described as her boisterously riding him. That’s the sex position of choice in Hiaasen’s novels, in which all the female characters are depicted as modern, liberated and active, rather than passive recipients.

What stood out in this particular description is the way Hiaasen goes out of his way to describe the way Gillian clenches her cervical muscle around Sammy’s cock, describing it not once but twice (p.287) – just that bit more pornographic detail than we’ve had in the previous novels.

Boyd lies to his wife that his work are sending him to a special clinic in Florida to be cured of his aphenphosmphobia and she pretends to go along with the story, all the while knowing she’s sending Dealey the private dick to photograph his penetration of his mistress. This is the precise term that is used, repeatedly, on pages 112, 113, 115, 147. Lily rings up Dealey to check: ‘Penetration? You got penetration?’, p.242.) Lily wants an unambiguous photo of her husband’s cock entering his mistress’s vulva. If Dealey is unsure how to get the shot, Lily tells Dealey to hire some porn and study the technique and the angles. Which he does and which the novels gives us descriptions of.

I think I know that lots of people are sex mad. It’s not such a novel or informative theme as the bass fishing in Double Whammy or the agricultural pollution in Skinny Dip or the plastic surgery industry in Skin Tight or the extended satire on tacky theme parks in Native Tongue or the detailed explanations of corrupt property development in Sick Puppy. What industry or sector is being satirised here? Telesales, maybe, a bit, at the start. But mostly it’s sex-obsessed creepy men.

A critic might say that all this titillation is here to make up for a slight lack of something else, the lack of a really meaty political or social subject.

Words for sex

Small thing but I was struck by the way lots of characters use the word ‘bone’ for the f word. ‘He just wanted to bone me’, ‘Has he boned her yet?’, ‘She’s paying you twenty-five grand to tape her old man boning some bimbo?’ (p.241) etc. Gillian calls Sammy ‘a serious blue-eyed Bone Machine’ (p.316). Presumably that’s why an erection is referred to as a ‘boner’, because it’s what men use for ‘boning’.

Other synonyms include the more traditional ‘ball’ (‘so I’d ball him’); ‘sleep with’, or just plain ‘do’.

‘I’m getting a complex,’ she said; ‘why aren’t you trying to do me?’ (p.245)

Whatever word is used, ‘boning’ or characters obsessing about ‘boning’, is a much more central theme to the novel than in previous ones. It’s all Gillian or Eugenie or Lily or Piejack or Boyd seem to think about.

Dad rock

Having established in previous novels that the narrator – or at least all his sympathetic characters – are fans of 1970s Adult-Oriented Rockers such as Neil Young and the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hiaasen keeps up the Dad Rock ambience with references throughout this novel to  more Dad Rock classics such as The Eagles (p.163), James Taylor (p.225), The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix (p.227), the Rolling Stones (p.245), Johnny Cash (p.266), the Allmann Brothers (p.312), Kiss (p.316), Neil Young again (p.393). Is it a deliberate marketing ploy, to appeal to boomer rock fans?

Having mulled it over, I think the recurring references to Dad Rock make up one of the 3 or 4 components of Hiaasen’s Good Place. Almost all Hiaasen’s energy goes into eviscerating the forces of evil and corruption at very great length, with often gruesome and violent consequences.

What is there to balance against a world of corruption and lies? Well, I think there is a handful of good things in Hiaasen’s world and good ole rock and roll is one of them. The epitome of Good is the image of the strong, competent, decent guy, Mick Stranahan (who features in Skin Tight and Skinny Dip) alone on his remote house built on stilts out in Biscayne Bay, quietly fishing with a loyal dog by his side and Neil Young on the cassette player as the dawn comes up over the ocean. Good times. Simple down-home values. Beautiful unspoilt scenery. Quiet fishing. Loyal dog. Cool sounds. Maybe light up a half-smoked doobie. Life is sweet. It is still possible to get away from all the crap, and the old-time music which recurs throughout the books are markers for that.

J.B.

Obligatory James Bond reference, p.303.


Credit

Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All references are to the 2007 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)

Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen (1986)

Reading the final novel in William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy was like having my teeth pulled out one by one. It was a gruelling slog. Several times, as I forced myself to crawl on across the shiny, beautifully engineered desert of Gibson’s prose, I caught a glimpse of a pile of old Carl Hiaasen paperbacks I bought in the 1990s lying around by my shelves, and began to fantasise about escaping from Gibson’s pretentious, globe-trotting, expense account narratives, with their exhaustive descriptions of every item of clothing every character is wearing, and the expensive cars they drive and the pretentious gadgets they use, and Gibson’s eerie absence of plot and disappointing denouements, for something simpler and funnier from a simpler, funnier time.

Hiaasen’s books, by contrast, are quick and hilarious. Instead of Gibson’s laboured, carefully-wrought, burnished chrome sentences, Hiaasen just tells it quick and dirty.

‘Look at that crybaby,’ Jesús Bernal said, scowling at the heartsick Indian. ‘Somebody shot his pet lizard.’
‘You shut up,’ Viceroy Wilson hissed at the Cuban, ‘or I’ll nail your nuts to your nose.’ (p.218)

Hiaasen’s plots are outrageous and farcically convoluted (as opposed to Gibson’s plots which are contorted and obscure yet consistently disappointing). Hiaasen’s characters are varied, over the top and grotesquely colourful, unlike Gibson’s monotonously soundalike ‘cool’ characters who display as much personality as shop window mannequins.

Potted biography

Hiaasen was born in 1953 in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He graduated with a degree in journalism and, by 1976, was writing for the Miami Herald where he worked for the city desk, Sunday magazine and award-winning investigative team. In 1985 he became a thrice-weekly columnist for the paper. Meanwhile, the ambitious author had already published his first novel, Powder Burn, co-written with friend and fellow journalist William Montalbano, in 1981, followed by Trap Line 1982.

In 1986 came his first solo novel, Tourist Season. It’s a rip-roaring comedy crime thriller, by turns breath-takingly violent and gut-wrenchingly funny. The plot makes sense, albeit in a savagely satirical manner, and the characters are immediately colourful and entertaining.

The setup

The lead writer and columnist for the fictional newspaper the Miami Sun, ‘Skip’ Wiley, who had been writing increasingly savage satirical pieces against the ruination of Florida by mass immigration from other parts of the US of fat philistine retirees, finally goes postal and sets up a half-assed band of environmental ‘revolutionaries’, dedicated to acts of terror designed to wreck Florida’s reputation as a haven for the old and tasteless. They call themselves Las Noches de Diciembre and consist of Skip himself (aged 37) and:

  • Daniel ‘Viceroy’ Wilson (black, 36), previously a star fullback for the Miami Dolphins football team who, after being dropped from the sport, spent some time as a drug addict and a petty criminal, before reading up on history and realising how his people had been exploited, cleaning himself up and dedicating himself to the fight against the white-dominated Florida establishment
  • Jesús Bernal (Cuban, late 20s), a shifty, sneaky Hispanic, formerly a member of an anti-Castro group named the First Weekend in July Movement, who was their lead bomb-maker and letter-writer, but was kicked out for his farcically inept attempts at making and planting bombs (they’re always going off too soon or he blows up the wrong people) and in any case, his revolutionary politics are a pose, since he was born and raised in New Jersey, graduated from posh Dartmouth College, and has never been to Cuba in his life
  • Tommy Tigertail (mid-20s), a cool, looming, unspeaking member of the Seminole Nation who, in one of the novel’s thousands of ironies, are allowed to run gambling operations and so have made a fortune by catering to the infatuation of white retirees for bingo – like the others he is motivated by anger at white men’s over-development of Florida’s natural habitat, and also whitey’s victories over his forebears

Tommy keeps a ‘tame’ crocodile named Pavlov and in the early phase of the ‘revolution’, the Noches kidnap random tourists and feed them to the crocodile, starting with a blameless middle-aged tourist visiting Florida on a convention of Shriners, Theodore Bellamy, whose fez washes up on a Miami beach. The Noches crank things up a notch when they kidnap president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce, B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, dress him in Bellamy’s garish tourist outfit then have the crocodile tear him in half and stuff the remains in a tourist suitcase for the cops to find, with a a toy rubber alligator lodged in his throat.

So the novel is, in part, a satire on a terrorist group made up of cranks and, to some extent, ethnic stereotypes; but mostly a fierce satire on the tackiness of northern tourists in Florida, and the desperate and destructive commercialisation of the state and its fragile environment.

There are two other groups of characters, namely the cops and Wiley’s fellow journalists. Chief among the cops is Al García, Detective Sergeant for the Metro-Dade Police Homicide unit, who we see being routinely patronised by his predominantly Anglo colleagues and by the decidedly white, middle-aged men of the Chamber of Commerce. García is appointed head of a task force to catch the terrorists.

As to the journalists, at the Miami Sun were are introduced to two main characters, the paper’s long-suffering managing editor, Cab Mulcahy, and Ricky Bloodworth, a wet-behind-the-ears reporter. Energetic and ambitious, Bloodworth yearns for success in journalism, but lacks all the qualities necessary for a good reporter, including sensitivity, tact, and even basic writing skills. It is a running gag that Skip reads the articles about him and the Noches in the Sun and is professionally insulted when they fall below his own high standards and rings up the paper’d editor to shout down the phone at him. He is especially enraged when Bloodworth rewrites some of the copy he himself has submitted.

The joke being an ironic one about journalists as a profession, that Skip may have become a murdering fanatic but he still gets incandescent at poor writing style.

(It’s also a running gag that most of the white cops and journalists find it hard to pronounce Las Noches and don’t know what it means, finding it much easier to refer to the nachos, much to Skip’s exasperation.)

Sitting mid-way between these groups, and overlapping all of them is probably the central character of the book, Brian Keyes (32), a former reporter for the Sun and now a private detective, who gets caught up in the increasingly psychotic behaviour of Skip’s ramshackle band of would-be terrorists.

The victims

  • Theodore Bellamy, shriner
  • B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce
  • Renee LeVoux, tourist from Montreal
  • Ida Kimmelman, retiree
  • Dr. Remond Courtney, shill psychiatrist
  • Pavlov: a giant American crocodile
  • Jenna: Skip’s girlfriend, Brian’s ex-girlfriend

Plot developments

Keyes is hired by the widow of Theodore Bellamy to find out what happened to him. Slowly it becomes clear the Noches, led by his old friend and star newspaper reporter Skip Wiley, murdered him. In her meeting with the widow, she introduces him to two burley Shriners, colleagues of Theodore, who volunteer to help him.

Keyes goes out into the Everglades in search of Las Noches and finds a derelict cabin on stilts. He’s captured by Las Noches and forced to watch the ritual killing of tourist Ida Kimmelman, as Viceroy and Tiger throw her to the crocodile, Pavlov. Brian tries to stop them but sneaky little creep Bernal stabs him in the back. The Noches motorboat Brian back to the mainland, dumping him on a highway, where he flags down a car and is taken to hospital to be treated.

Skip’s girlfriend is the flakey Jenna, who Brian used to go out with, so there is an immense tangle of emotions and relationship damage, particularly since her loyalties seem to waver between the two men.

Keyes tails Jenna from her apartment to the airport, where he discovers that two Shriners have been tailing him. With commendable professionalism, the Shriners identify that Jenna has caught a plane to Grand Bahama, and all three catch the next one.

Here Keyes tracks Wiley down to a beach where he is sunning himself and confronts him with his deeds. He tries to reason with him, but Wiley puts his side of the argument: 1,000 new Northerners arrive every day to foul up Florida’s beautiful countryside, the only way to protect it is to terrify them away.

Keyes seriously contemplates killing Skip there and then to prevent any more innocent civilians being kidnapped and murdered. But while he’s still figuring out the possibilities, Skip blows a whistle and a bunch of compliant Bahamian cops come running, arrest Keyes and the Shriners and deport them. Skip has lavishly bribed the local authorities.

Just before he blew the whistle, Skip portentously announced to Keyes that he is planning the biggest spectacular so far, and mysteriously announces he is going to defile the most famous virgin in Florida. Keyes spends the plane journey home wondering what this can possibly mean and, by the time he has another meeting with Cab Mulcahy, has come to the conclusion that Skip and Las Noches are going to disrupt the annual beauty pageant and parade which leads up to the climax of the state football season.

One of the consistent characteristics of Hiaasen’s novels is their artful construction, whereby he creates about 4 or 5 sets of characters and then stages their increasingly convoluted and frantic interactions with masterful skill. That and a steady stream of outlandish and grotesque incidents.

Ricky Bloodworth and the bomb

A good example is the bomb. Jesús Bernal is a short weedy guy who feels jealous of the tall manliness of the others in the Noches and is continually trying to prove what a real man and real terrorist he is. Inevitably each attempt is even more of a fuck-up than its predecessor.

This Bernal has the bright idea of posting a parcel bomb to Detective Al García who is doing a good job tracking down Los Noches. But unfortunately the parcel arrives on García’s desk at the police station as ambitious young journalist Ricky Bloodworth is hanging round waiting for a scoop. In García’s absence and convinced the package contains vital information, Bloodworth swipes it and nips down to the station toilets to open it. It is perched on his lap when he opens it and triggers the bomb, which explodes, blowing his fingertips off and scorching his penis. See what I mean by outlandish and grotesque.

The kidnap of Detective García

When he reconvenes with the other Noches Bernal is ridiculed for his abject failure and for  so he ups his ambitions and kidnaps García, driving him out to an isolated lake where he tries to get him to sign a document admitting he is a traitor to the cause of Cuban Liberation, the cause García kids himself he is a leading light in. The scene builds up to a gruesome climax when Jesús shoots Al in the shoulder with a shotgun and his body falls into the lake, but we have been following Brian Keyes as he tailed the car out to this isolated spot and now Keyes shoots Bernal dead.

The cruise ship full of snakes

Next evening Skip pulls off another of his anti-tourist stunts. He hires a helicopter and flies low over a cruise ship full of fat tourists, abruptly throwing from the chopper loads of shopping bags. Initially the tourists think it’s some kind of marketing game until the bags land and out of them slither thousands of swamp snakes. Panicking passengers dive off the ship which radios for the Coast Guard but as it begins to fly in in pursuit, there’s a big surprise for the reader as Skip’s helicopter unexpectedly crashes at sea before it reaches land. There’s realistic wreckage and no bodies are found.

The Orange Bowl Parade

Throughout the second half of the novel the city authorities, the cops and Brian had been assuming that Skip’s threat had meant he was going to attack the annual Orange Bowl parade. Central feature of this is the presence of the winner of the annual beauty pageant., so this prompts a lot of satire about the utterly impure and often seedy motivation of all concerned behind such parades.

At the final pageant the young woman chosen to be beauty queen is Kara Lynn Shivers who has only entered the pageant to please her father. The authorities had been thinking the Noches were going to  attack the parade and seize the queen, but they didn’t want to ruin it and wreck the start of the tourist season by either calling it off or stuffing it with heavy-handed cops. Instead Garcia suggested a compromise which is to hire Brian Keyes as personal bodyguard to Shivers. Initially wary of him, Shivers begins to appreciate his honesty and valour and the pair, unexpectedly, fall in love.

Although Skip’s helicopter appears to have crashed and the Noches been wiped out, the authorities take no chances and Brian’s personal protection of Shiver is accompanied by a strong undercover police presence, and the Orange Bowl Parade itself is described in great detail and the reader is genuinely on tenterhooks about whether something very bad will happen. But it doesn’t. The entire thing passes off without a hitch and there is a sense of anti-climax among all concerned.

The big game

It is only after the parade is over, Kara has gone home and Brian has gone off duty that it dawns on him that on the following evening Kara will make a brief appearance during half time at the big annual football game. He buys a ticket and goes along, but is helpless when the Noches do appear, outrageously and flamboyantly, using an airboat to skid across the football pitch and scoop Kara from the half time podium.

The black ex-football player ‘Viceroy’ Wilson had bribed one of the players to lend him his kit so that he can take part in the kidnap, scooping Kara off the podium and then helping her into the airboat, but Kara fiercely resists. The airboat is followed by none other than the two dogged Shriners we met right back at the start of the novel and, at the moment when Viceroy finally throws the squealing Kara into the airboat and turns and gives a black power salute, one of the Shriners shoots Viceroy dead.

Tommy Tigertail is piloting the airboat out of the stadium and hands Kara over to Skip waiting in a fast car, which roars off down the road before the stadium cops can catch up. Tigertail turns in the other direction and heads off to hole up with his uncle somewhere in the swamps, hoping to never see a white man again. (Note that Tommy makes a cameo appearance in Hiaasen’s 2006 novel, Nature Girl, which features his mixed-race nephew, Sammy Tigertail, as a lead character.)

In a fury Brian descends on Jenna’s flat. Up to now she has limply defended Skip’s actions and Brian has given her the benefit of the doubt because he still holds a candle for her. But now he is furious. One of Skip’s foibles was keeping all his cuttings in a real wooden coffin. Brian rips it open and leafs through all his cuttings.

Confrontation on Osprey Island

One of them gives a clue that he has taken Kara Lynn to a remote place called Osprey Island, a small nature preserve in the middle of Biscayne Bay.

Cut to Skip on the island with Kara Lynn who he has tied and gagged. He explains that a massive new condominium development has been planned for the island which is going to be ploughed flat. Step one was the developers have comprehensively mined the island with dynamite set to be exploded at dawn.

Now Skip explains to Kara Lynn that he is going to leave her here to be blown up along with the rest of the island’s wildlife and when her death is discovered it will cause such a stink that it will send a ‘revolutionary’ message to Florida’s greedy developers. As he explains all this Skip is impressed by the way Kara Lynn keeps her head and tries to reason with him. He begins to regret his plan, certainly taking her gag off and listening to her. Shame. She seems like a sweet kid.

He’s still talking to her when Brian arrives and shoots Skip in the leg. Brian tells him the boat he came is out of fuel, they need his one to escape in. Initially Skip refuses to tell Brian where he has anchored his boat and is ready for the dynamite to kill all three of them till Brian reveals that he brought Jenna along too. At which point Skip caves in, tells him where his boat is moored but, to Brian’s surprise, refuses to come along. He will see his crusade out to the bitter end.

Kara, Jenna and Brian run to Skip’s boat, fire it up and are motoring away as the seconds count down. As they come out into clear water they all see the Skip is climbing a tree because a bald eagle nesting there has returned to its roost and Skip is desperately trying to scare it away.

After so much comic mayhem the novel ends on a surprisingly moving note, just as the ‘all clear’ signal for the detonation sounds, with Jenna, Brian and Kara all praying for the eagle, a powerful symbol of the dignity of the Florida environment, to fly away and be safe.

Nostalgia

Ah the good old days, before the internet, before smartphone, before social media. When the only phones were in offices, private homes or payphone boxes on the street. When the height of digital technology was sending a fax. When there were computer monitors and keyboards on desks but only so you could send documents through internal systems, such as journalists sending their copy to the printing section of the Miami Sun. None of them were connected to the wider world. Nobody had heard of the internet let alone smartphones and social media. People were just as corrupt and violent but the technology they were corrupt and violent with was easier to understand.

Also, no mention of climate change. Hiaasen was writing from a time when green and environmental issues really were for a tiny minority of fruit loops and eccentrics. What everyone now knows about global warming and systematic environmental degradation (death of the corals, seas full of plastic) has tipped the balance in Skip’s favour. Doesn’t seem so mad now. This novel feels like a message from much simpler times.

Florida’s environment

In 1986, when this novel was published and Hiaasen was raving against the overpopulation and resulting environmental destruction of the state, Florida’s population was 12 million. Today it is 21 million. People means pollution, means degradation of the environment, destruction of habitats, obliteration of other life forms. Thus:

Sprawling development has carved wildlife habitat into smaller and smaller pieces, divided by highways or paved over altogether for shopping malls and office parks — threatening state symbols such as the Florida panther and the Florida black bear. Many of Florida’s coastal marshes and barrier islands — home to endangered wildlife such as manatees, wood storks and loggerhead sea turtles — have been transformed into marinas and condominiums. The Everglades, a unique ecosystem that is home to 68 federally endangered or threatened plant and animal species, has already lost half of its area to agricultural and urban development and continues to face pressure from South Florida’s booming development. (Floridian nature)

I wonder whether anything Hiaasen has written has had any impact at all in slowing the destruction of Florida’s environment. (If you read his most recent novel, Squeeze Me, his explicit reply is No. Squeeze Me explicitly despairs of saving the Florida environment, which he now [2020] sees as irreparably ruined.)


Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Family Britain: A Thicker Cut, 1954-57 by David Kynaston (2009)

This is the second part of the second volume of David Kynaston’s social history of post-war Britain. As usual, it is a dense collage of quotes from the diaries, letters, interviews, surveys and speeches of an enormous range of people from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to vox pops of shoppers in the street via civil servants, actors, coal miners, housewives, writers who were kids at the time recalling their early memories (John Fowles, David Hare, Alan Bennett, Hunter Davies) – all combining to give you a really deeply felt sense of what it was like to live through these years.

Chronological events part one

Thus, without any preliminary introduction the book opens straight into a cabinet meeting discussing the problem of coloured workers, held on Wednesday 3 February 1954: ‘Are we to saddle ourselves with colour problems in the UK?’ Winston Churchill asked, a sentiment which is echoed half a dozen times as the race problem and the ‘colour bar’ are revisited throughout the book, reflecting the rising rate of immigration from the Commonwealth.

This very long book then touches on:

1954

  • the housing problem, the debate about whether to build flats or houses, and whether to shunt people out to the periphery (as believed by ‘dispersionists’) or keep them in high rise inner cities (‘urbanists’)
  • whether to decriminalise homosexuality, specifically in light of the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, which began in 15 March
  • Billy Graham’s Greater London Crusade starting 1 March
  • the campaign to set up a commercial TV channel to rival the BBC’s monopoly; the canny entrepreneurs lobbying for commercial TV choose Sir Kenneth Clarke as their ultra-respectable front man and he gives a speech supporting it; next time he enters his club, he is roundly booed
  • 5 April Commons debate about the H-bomb, necessary if Britain is to remain ‘a world power’
  • repeated crashes of the British-built Comet airliner result in it being grounded and overtaken by the American Boeing
  • newspapers report on fighting at youth clubs and dance halls involving teenagers with a new look, the Teddy Boys: ‘The effect of the whole décor is thin, mean and sinister, and is obviously meant to be’ (Cyril Dunn in his diary)
  • Doctor in the House starring Dirk Bogarde is the box office smash of 1954
  • 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford, Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile
  • on 27 May, Hungary beat England 7-1 (West Germany go on to beat Hungary in the World Cup Final in July)
  • Iris Murdoch publishes her first novel, Under the Net. She is a committed communist
  • butter comes off the ration
  • June, Benny Hill shoots to TV stardom doing impersonations on Showcase
  • the myxomatosis epidemic among wild rabbits continued, eventually 99% of the population is wiped out
  • refrigerators are beginning to be a sign of status, notes sociologist Phyllis Willmott (p.399); restrictions on hire-purchase are removed for a wide range of consumer goods such as fridges, hoovers, radios, TVs, motorbikes and cars, setting in train the consumer society
  • August – Salad Days is a surprise hit in the theatre, starting a run which continues till 1960
  • Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring published, followed in November by the Two Towers
  • September – the Third Programme’s live broadcast of Benjamin Britten’s new opera, A Turn of the Screw
  • Kidbrook school opens, London’s first purpose-built comprehensive
  • October – an exhibition of paintings by John Bratby leads critic David Sylvester to coin the term ‘kitchen sink’ school, which goes on to be widely applied to theatre and film
  • 2 November – début of Hancock’s Half Hour on BBC radio
  • by the end of the year there are nearly 4 million TV licences

1955

  • January – BBC documentary Has Britain a Colour Bar? to which the answer was emphatically yes
  • February: road traffic has almost doubled since 1938 and so the government publishes a major road expansion plan including the building of two motorways, M1 and M6
  • government also announces plans to build 12 nuclear power stations, the most advanced scheme of nuclear power anywhere in the world
  • January – debut on TV of The Sooty Show and The Benny Hill Show
  • February – debut of Kitchen Magic, presented by Fanny Cradock, first of the celebrity chefs, coinciding with the era of rationing passing into memory i.e. the start of conspicuous consumption
  • March – national newspaper strike
  • 5 April Winston Churchill (aged 80) steps down as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister
  • 6 April replaced by Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford) who announces a snap general election for 26 May (the voting age was still 21, as it continued to be until 1969)
  • May General Election: Conservatives 321 seats, Labour 277, Liberals 6, the 17 communist candidates polled 33,000 votes between them. Turnout was down from 82 to 76% amid what Kynaston portrays as widespread apathy, the general interpretation being that the economy was booming, rationing was over, consumer goods were becoming widely available, who cares about politics? Hugh Gaitskell, and Kynaston, attribute it to Tory success with housewives.
  • May Day – Stirling Moss became the first British driver to win the Mille Miglia in Italy
  • May – The Dam Busters released, the outstanding British film of the year ‘maybe of the decade’
  • Miners strike, train drivers strike, dockers’ strike
  • 13 July Ruth Ellis hanged for murder, last woman hanged (the last men hanged were executed in August 1964)
  • August – Kingsley Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, and publication of the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records
  • September – Henry Fairlie writes an article in the Spectator describing the ‘Establishment’ that runs Britain
  • 22 September – commercial television (ITV) starts broadcasting in the London area
  • October was dominated by controversy among politicians, press and people on the long-running saga about whether young Princess Margaret Rose (25) should or should not marry divorced father-of-two Group-Captain Peter Townsend (30) with whom she was clearly in love. After dividing the nation, she decided not to.

Sociological studies

About two-thirds of the way through the text it abruptly stops giving a month-by-month overview of political and popular events and turns into an extended consideration of various sociological issues, moving seamlessly through religious belief, attitudes to marriage, sex, homosexuality, unmarried mothers, abortion, prostitution, the role of women, women in the home, women in the workplace and so on.

As usual Kynaston draws evidence from a wide range of sources: from social historians, from the surprising number of surveys and sociological studies carried out at the time, from the diaries or letters of ordinary people and politicians or the autobiographies of writers, from questionnaires carried out by contemporary magazines, from government-sponsored reports, and so on.

Inevitably, in the longish sequence about the social expectations on women in the 1950s, the white, private-school-educated man Kynaston bends over backwards to emphasise his feminist credentials and bring out how lazy and selfish 1950s men were, and the pressure of social expectations on women. There’s a lot less about the social expectations on men – to be financial provider, role model, father, and good companion in marriage.

In fact, although a huge amount of the content is informative and illuminating, not much is very surprising: the four books I’ve read so far tend to confirm everything you already suspected, but just with an awesome range of witnesses and voices adding texture and lived experience to the statistics and stereotypes, making the era really come to life.

Some of the sociological findings do raise a smile for confirming sociology’s tendency to state the bleeding obvious. For example, on pages 576-77 Kynaston quotes several surveys which, after hundreds of interviews and hard work compiling the data, present the dazzling conclusion that, for lots of working women, the main motivation for going out to work was — to earn money! 73% of married women gave ‘financial reasons’ as their main motive for going to work. Not, maybe, earth-shattering news.

This list gives you a sense of the scope and number of surveys Kynaston refers to, as well as indicating the subject matter they address:

  • Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss study of NHS services underpinned the 1956 Guillebaud Committee report on the NHS which recommended no major changes
  • BBC survey 1955-6 about Britain’s decline (28% thought there’d been a decline in Britain’s economic ranking, blaming the trade unions and strikes)
  • White and Coloured by Michael Banton (p.451) recorded how cities across the UK recruited west Indian bus drivers and conductors through the first half of the 1950s
  • 1956 survey of racial attitudes in Birmingham (two thirds thought coloured people were intrinsically less intelligent than white people)
  • Family and Social Network by Elizabeth Bott (1957), including the Bott hypothesis that the connectedness or the density of a husband’s and wife’s separate social networks is positively associated with marital role segregation
  • Tom Brennan, author of a 1956 study of occupants of the Gorbals and attitudes to redevelopment
  • The Sexual, Marital and Family Relationships of the English Woman (1956) by Eustace Chesser (women look for physical strength in man more than looks; the higher up the social scale the more likely a woman was to experience sexual satisfaction; husband doesn’t pet enough [foreplay]; ‘overwhelmingly it was felt by wives that men wanted sex more frequently than women did’, p.592)
  • Citizens of Tomorrow by a working party of educationalists and sociologists
  • Peter Collison – study of the Cutteslowe Wall in Oxford
  • Professor Kate Fisher, pioneering historian of sex e.g. , Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918-1960 (2007)
  • February 1957 Gallup survey about church going
  • 1954 BBC-commissioned Gallup survey into church attendance
  • anthropologist Frank Girling spent 18 months on a Scottish housing estate studying the unskilled workers and their families (women had a dominant position in the social life of the area and their homes)
  • Social Mobility in Britain by David Glass finding a generally low level of social mobility (p.410)
  • 1951 survey of British life by Geoffrey Gorer
  • Ken Grainger did a study of Herbert’s the machine tool firm in Coventry
  • Natalie Higgins, author of a study of marriage in mid-twentieth century England (women looked for a man who was clean, decent and hard working)
  • Margot Jefferys author of a study of married women working in the civil service
  • Pearl Jephcott investigated youth clubs in London and Nottingham
  • 1956 survey by Joyce Joseph of 600 adolescent girls attending school in the Home Counties and the West Country
  • 1949 Mass-Observation on household income
  • 1951 Mass-Observation survey of 700 working class housewives
  • 1955 Mass-Observation survey into capital punishment
  • 1956 Mass-Observation study of the housewife’s day
  • 1957 Mass-Observation survey on women in work
  • John Barron May’s study of a police division in inner-city Liverpool
  • John Barron May’s 1956 study of Liverpool’s Crown Street area
  • John Mogey’s study of working class life in Oxford
  • 1954 NHS survey of services for the elderly
  • Anthony Richmond author of The Colour Problem
  • Elizabeth Roberts, author of a 1990s oral history of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston – parents became closer to their children, than their own parents had been
  • Women of the Streets (1955) edited by C.H. Rolph
  • English Life and Leisure (1951)  by Rowntree and Lavers
  • Lulie Shaw, author of a study of a working class suburb in the 1950s
  • John Smith in 1955 conducted field work at the Peak Freen biscuit factory in Bermondsey
  • Steven Tolliday’s study of Coventry engineering workers
  • The Family Life of Old People (1957) by Peter Townsend
  • Margaret Williamson – interviews in the ironstone region of Cleveland: post-war fathers more involved and willing to play with their children than pre-war fathers
  • Family and Kinship in East London (1957) by Michael Young and Peter Willmott
  • More About the Sex Factor by Dr Helena Wright (1947)

The single finding I found most interesting was the notion that the extended kinship system Young and Willmott found in the East End (grandparents and siblings living nearby and able to babysit and do errands) disappeared as young couples moved out to housing estates on the edge of town, and to new towns. Being isolated and thrown back on their own resources coincided or led to a) families being smaller (two children) and b) a greater sharing of household work and parenting, more involvement by dads i.e. the loss of an extended family network was compensated by more ‘modern’ gender roles. Although it did also just lead to lots of lonely, isolated mums.

Chronological events part two

1955

  • October 15 Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets enters the Billboard Top 20
  • November: Cabinet decided not to support the Home Secretary’s plan for legislation to limit immigration from the Commonwealth
  • books of the year: The Cruel Sea, Reach for the Sky, HMS Ulysses
  • Christmas Day: Somerset Maugham published an attack on Kingsley Amis’s characters, calling them ‘scum’
  • December Clement Attlee stands down as leader of the Labour Party, replaced by Hugh Gaitskell (aged 49, educated at Winchester Public School and New College, Oxford)

1956

  • January – a concert by young turks Harrison Birtwhistle and Peter Maxwell Davies
  • February – London Transport starts to recruit staff from Barbados, followed by Trinidad and Jamaica
  • high prices bring discontent, complaints about Eden’s premiership, and worries about growing manufacturing competition from Germany and Japan
  • March – politicians and commentators react to news of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin and his crimes – a number of intellectuals quit the communist party and were to form the nucleus of the New Left which flourished in the 1960s
  • April – release of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier amid an orgy of merchandising
  • April – Khrushchev and Soviet premier Bulganin visit Britain, attending a race meeting, tea with the Queen, lunch at the House of Commons, and questions at the Oxford Union
  • 8 May – first night of Look Back In Anger by John Osborne divides the critics
  • 19 May – Elvis Presley entered the British charts for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel
  • May – opening of the This is Tomorrow art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, including Richard Hamilton’s iconic collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing, the earliest example of Pop Art
Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing (1956) by Richard Hamilton

  • 12 June – bulldozers start clearing hedgerows for the building of the M6, Britain’s first motorway (opened in 1958, the M1 was opened in 1959)
  • winter, spring and summer dominated by strikes, strident speeches by trade union leaders and complaints from the media about their selfishness
  • October – Tommy Steele enters the top 20 with Rock with the Caveman becoming Britain’s first rock’n’roll star
  • 17 October Windscale nuclear power station became the first nuclear power plant to feed electricity into a national grid anywhere in the world
  • November – Post Office Premium Bonds launched

1957

  • Wednesday 9 January – Sir Anthony Eden resigns as Tory leader and Prime Minister on grounds of ill health
  • Thursday 10 January – replaced by Harold Macmillan (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford)

Suez and Hungary

Traditional history of the 1950s focus on the Suez Crisis as a symptom of the end of Britain’s role as a genuine global power. Characteristically Kynaston reserves it for almost an afterthought in the last fifteen or so pages of the book, and even then his account is interspersed with references to Elvis Presley, Fanny Cradock and petrol prices, and he doesn’t concern himself with the military or geopolitical issues, but focuses on how the unfolding crisis was received by his usual cast of diarists – Nella Last, Anthony Heap and so on – as well as the diary entries of Prime Minister Eden’s wife and the private thoughts of other politicians. Two things come over:

  • I hadn’t realised that the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and the Soviet tanks rukbling in to suppress the Hungarian Uprising were so closely synchronised – the first shots fired by the Hungarian security forces on protesters were on 23 October, the next day Soviet tanks occupied Budapest. On 29 October Israeli jets attacked Egyptian positions and on 31 October the British and French began bombing Egyptian positions on 31 October. Part of what made liberals so angry about Suez was that it was an illegal unilateral action not sanctioned by the UN. At a stroke this removed the moral superiority or ability of the West to criticise the Soviets. If there had been no Suez the West would have been infinitely better placed to protest the Soviet invasion and sanction the USSR.
  • I knew that Suez divided the nation but Kynaston’s strength, here as everywhere else in the book, is to use diaries, letters, speeches, memoirs to really bring home the virulent anger on both sides. As families and husbands and wives and generations bitterly fell out over the best course of action, it’s impossible not to see the parallels with Brexit.

Class

Of the Conservative Party’s 600 candidates in the 1955 general election, 80% went to private school, and 80 had gone to Eton. Ten of Anthony Eden’s 18-strong cabinet went to Eton, five of whom also went on to Christ Church, Oxford (‘the House’, as it is known). Small world, the ruling class.

The education dilemma

Nearly seventy years after the debates about education which Kynaston quotes so extensively in his book, we:

  • still have an extensive network of private schools, whose alumni continue to dominate all aspects of public and economic life
  • are still agonising and hand-wringing about whether selection at age 11, the 11-plus, and grammar schools are a good or a bad thing

Examples of such agonising and debating:

Why are the basic facts about education i.e. what works best for individuals and for society as a whole, still not definitely known? What have all those educationalists and university departments of education and educational psychologists and all the rest of them been doing for the past 65 years?

Consumer society

My impression of British history over the past 70 years is that people wanted more stuff.

Governments came and went, politicians agonised over the precise wording of manifestos and speeches, clever Oxbridge graduates devised wizard wheezes (the poll tax, universal credit) but Kynaston’s approach to history makes it crystal clear that most people don’t give a stuff about politics – again and again disillusioned politicians find themselves speaking to tiny audiences in the rain, or surveys show that half the people surveyed have never even heard the phrase ‘welfare state’, let alone have sophisticated ideas about how to fund it.

What comes over strongly – especially in the recurrent thread about housing, slum clearance, the creation of flats and so on – is that people want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Again and again we read that people want to live in houses because of the privacy and don’t want to live in flats because of the lack of privacy.

And all through the book there is a massive disconnect between the university-educated politicians and theorists and writers and planners and activators and sociologists and anthropologists who agonise about definitions of ‘community’ and the ‘working class’ and the ‘proletariat’ — and the people living in Coventry or Birmingham or Glasgow (the most rundown city in Britain) who want: a clean home, hot water, a sink, a bathroom, an inside toilet.

And once they’ve got that, they want one of those TV sets that everyone is talking about, and one of the new line of fridges in which they can put the new range of frozen foods which were just being launched in the mid-1950s, led by Birds Eye fish fingers, they want instant coffee and tinned beer they can bring home to sup as they watch Fabian of the Yard or Variety Hour..

An indication of how things were changing was Elizabeth David’s comment in the preface to the 1956 edition of A Book of Mediterranean Food that the food situation was ‘startlingly different’ to how it had been just two years before. Vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridge freezers, convenience foods, formica table and work tops, affordable eating out (Berni Inns opened in 1954 with their trademark meal of rump steak, chips and peas, a roll and butter and pudding for just 7/6d). Local traders were closing down while Marks and Spencer opened stores throughout the country. Tesco opened its first true supermarket (entirely self-service) in Maldon in 1956.

And the age of DIY was dawning, with cheap and effective Dulux paint going on sale in 1953 while Black and Decker decided to enter the domestic market in 1954, selling drills and lathes and saws, and the first DIY magazine, Practical Householder, was launched in October 1955.

While Doris Lessing was writing articles in praise of Stalin and E.P. Thompson was agonising about whether to leave the communist party over Hungary – precisely the type of upper-middle-class university-educated people and highfalutin’ issues that upper-middle-class university-educated historians usually focus on in their highfalutin’ histories – the people, the ‘masses’ who they so fatuously claimed to be speaking for – were going shopping, collecting the new green shield stamps and buying a new Morris Minor on the never-never.

They knew who the future belonged to – and it wasn’t Comrade Khrushchev.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Turner prize 2018 @ Tate Britain

The Turner Prize has been running since 1984. It is awarded annually to an artist born or based in Britain. Each year four artists are shortlisted by a jury for an outstanding exhibition or public presentation of their work in the previous year. This year, for the first time since its inception, all four finalists are video film-makers, namely the organisation Forensic Architecture, and three individual artists: Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson.

You go through the exhibition glass doors into a big light lounge-type space dominated by a big square table ringed by grey sofas. On the table are books for visitors to read on the exhibition’s themes. These are gender and identity, race and sexuality, politics, repression and resistance. Pretty standard, down the line, mainstream art school stuff ideology, then.

Turner Prize lounge, sofas, table and books

Turner Prize lounge, sofas, table and books

From this comfortable if antiseptic space four black doorways lead off. Beside each is a set of wall panels explaining the work and biography of each artist. You read about them, then walk into the black space which, in each case is in fact a short corridor which leads to a corner, turning into a pitch-black projection space, the corridor and turn being to ensure the projection space is as dark as a cinema.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Mohaiemen was born in 1969 in London and grew up in Bangladesh. Now, inevitably, he lives and works in New York. In the opinion of the jury his works ‘explore post-colonial identity, migration, exile and refuge’. He presents three works

Tripoli Cancelled is a fictional film which follows the daily routine of a man who has lived alone in an abandoned airport for a decade. It is 93 minutes long.

Two Meetings and a Funeral recreates key meetings from 1973 and 1974 during which the Non-Aligned Movement, set up after the Second World War to represent newly independent former colonial countries, began to reject socialism and move towards religion as a uniting force. It is 89 minutes long.

Still from Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen

Still from Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen

Volume eleven (flaw in the algorithm of cosmopolitanism) is a pamphlet.

Luke Willis Thompson

Thompson lives and works in London. He makes silent 35mm films which are projected by an enormous and noisy film projector onto a huge wall, rather than a screen. In the words of the jury, he ‘investigates the treatment of minority communities and the way objects, places and people can be imbued with violence.’

He presents a trilogy of films which ‘reframe histories of violence enacted against certain bodies, and offers counter-images to the media spectacle of our digital age.’

Cemetery of uniforms and liveries (2016) is 9 minutes 10 seconds long and features doleful portraits of the descendants of two women hurt in London by the police. Brandon is the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, who was shot by Metropolitan Police in 1985 when they raided her home looking for her son Michael. The shooting, which left Dorothy Groce paralysed, led to the 1985 Brixton riot. Graeme is the son of Joy Gardner, a 40-year-old Jamaican mature student living who died as the result of being bound and gagged by police who had raided her home intending to deport her in 1983. None of the officers involved in these women’s deaths were convicted. Brandon and Graeme face the camera in stark black and white, unmoving, unspeaking, with serious, grim, maybe mournful expressions.

Still from Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) by Luke Willis Thompson

Still from Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) by Luke Willis Thompson

autoportrait (2017, 8’50”) I saw this at the Photographers’ Gallery where it had won the Deutsche Börse photography prize in May of this year. In July 2016 Diamond Reynolds filmed and live-streamed the moments after the fatal shooting of her partner Philandro Castile by American police, the footage of her then and subsequently distributed round the world being of a hysterical crying woman. Thompson approached her with the idea of recording her image as she chose to present it, in clothes of her choosing, expressionless, aloof, in control.

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

_Human (2018, 9’30”) There is a long essay about this film on the Frieze website:

It examines the small sculpture the late British artist Donald Rodney made, using scraps of his own shed skin, and held together with dressmaking pins, as he lay ill with sickle cell anaemia.

Forensic Architecture

Unlike the other three entries, Forensic Architecture is not an individual: it is an international research agency that uses innovative technological and architectural processes to investigate allegations of state violence. It’s a well-funded and organised body, with members including architects, archaeologists, artists, filmmakers, journalists, lawyers, scientists, software developers and theorists.

They work with internationally reputable charities such as Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and Amnesty International. You might well ask yourself what they are doing in an art exhibition.

Well, their typical working method is to be called in when deaths have occurred, often caused by state actors, and to investigate the events using state of the art techniques they have pioneered.

The big example here relates to an incident which took place on 18 January 2017, when Israeli police attempted to clear an unrecognised Bedouin village so the area could have an Israeli settlement built on it. During the confused armed confrontation between the villagers and the police, local Yakub Musa Abu al-Qi’an and a Israeli policeman Erez Levi were killed.

The Israeli police at first claimed he was a terrorist, amid a set of evidence which presented a narrative justifying the police behaviour. But pro-Bedouin Israeli activists were present and filmed some of the events and took photos.

Drone footage incorporated in The long duration of a split second by Forensic Architecture

Drone footage incorporated in The long duration of a split second by Forensic Architecture

Bringing to bear the full panoply of modern forensic reconstructive technology, the agency’s experts were able to assemble a detailed timeline into which the scrambled footage, scattered audio, stills taken by the activists and the police themselves could be used to reconstruct what really happened. The Forensic Architecture website gives a detailed breakdown of the series of events as they eventually established and proved them.

As a visitor what you experience is: 1. in a dark room the hectic hand held footage captured by a reporter who, at the sound of shots falls to the ground, and you get a lot of scrabbled shots of the rocky ground. 2. But you can walk through the projection room and into a normal white gallery space: along one wall is the timeline of events I’ve just linked to, and then a separate, related work, Traces of Bedouin Inhabitation, which is a really characteristic piece of Forensic Architecture. The Israeli government claims it has the right to move Bedouin off the land since they are only temporary settlements. However Forensic Architecture experts have gone back and found the original aerial maps of the area produced by the British in 1945, and been able to prove that Bedouin settlements existed then, i.e. are older than the state of Israel.

Installation view of Traces of Bedouin habitation 1945-present showing headphones which give commentary and explanation

Installation view of Traces of Bedouin habitation 1945-present showing headphones which give commentary and explanation

This is fascinating, worthwhile and cutting edge forensic, legal, scientific and image manipulation work being done by an international team of experts. The installation also includes details of workshops the organisation held where people could go along and find out more about aspects of their work (and maybe get involved).

I’ve left till last the fourth installation which, on 4 December, was announced as the winner of the 2018 Turner Prize.

Charlotte Prodger’s Bridgit

Prodger is a Scottish lesbian. She has been working with the moving image for over 20 years during which time she has experimented with the changing technologies we use to capture images. In the words of the jury, she ‘deals with identity politics, particularly from a queer perspective. Using a range of technologies from old camcorders to iPhones, Prodger’s films build a complex narrative exploring relationships between queer bodies, landscape, language, technology and time.’

Bridgit is her most autobiographical work to date. It was shot on her iphone over the course of a year, capturing scenes around her including (the ones I saw) her cat lying on her bed, some impressive standing stones in a field with a mountain in the background, and the back of a ferry recording the white wake continually unfurling across the sea behind.

Over this are ‘found’ sounds like the radio on in the background, cars, planes, the rain. But also Prodger reading out excerpts from her journal in which she talks about coming out, working in a care home, and the experience of going under anaesthetic.

The work’s title comes from the neolithic goddess, Bridgit, whose name and associations have altered across time and location. She is not only a sort of presiding spirit over some of the Scottish locations Prodger films, but an example of the way ‘identity’ is unstable and fissiparous.

Still from Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger

Still from Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger

I walked in just as Prodger was reading part of her journal:

Names themselves weren’t codified as personal descriptors until the Domesday book. The idea behind taking a name appropriate to one’s current circumstance was that identity isn’t static. The concept of one’s public and private self, separately or together, changes with age or experience (as do the definitions of public and private); and the name or label or the identity package is an expression of that concept.

Now, 1. I’m not sure that’s true about Domesday. I just happen to have been looking at the Domesday book a few weeks ago in the British Library’s fabulous exhibitions about the Anglo-Saxons and whereas Anglo-Saxon churls may not have recorded names, I’m pretty sure the Norman aristocracy had very clearly defined names, and names, and nicknames, which often defined their roles. William the Conqueror.

And 2. It was just like being back at school with a teacher at the front of the room lecturing me. Or in a lecture hall back at college, and being lectured about the ideology of queerness and identity politics.

It always amuses me how the more PC art curators and artists will accuse the Victorians of heavy-handed moralising – but then praise to the skies the kind of art included in this show as radical and subversive when, quite clearly, it is equally committed as the Victorians to promoting, sustaining and forwarding the values of the day, the ideologies of our era – jam packed with ‘important’ and urgent social and moral messages.

The content may change but the Urge To Preach is an enduring feature of a certain kind of art, and is lapped up by a certain type of critic.

Thoughts

The most obvious conclusion from the show is that ‘art’ is being swallowed by ‘news’.

What was once the specialist field of news and current affairs journalism is now slap bang centre stage in three of the four works shortlisted for Britain’s biggest art prize.

The judges and some critics I’ve read called this ‘a political show’, maybe ‘the most political selection the Turner has ever made’.

I think that flatters both artists and jury. They can attend their gala champagne prize-winning dinner, funded by Banque National Paris (the eighth largest bank in the world), hand out the cheques for twenty-five grand, and still be under the flattering delusion that they are ‘radicals’ who are ‘changing the world’.

But there is a very big difference indeed between politics and news. News flashes onto our TV screens, laptop and mobile phone screens in a blizzard of outrage and anger. Twitter storms. Social media hurricanes. Trump says something stupid. Corbyn says something sexist. Black man shot in Los Angeles. Riots in Paris. Brexit latest. Ukraine latest. Jose Mourinho latest.

News is about making a big splash with sensational or tricksy coverage of essentially ephemeral incidents. News is here in a great flurry of excitement and then… gone, forgotten, yesterday’s tittle-tattle, only good for wrapping up chips.

Politics, on the other hand, is defined as:

the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties seeking or trying to maintain power

Politics requires long-term planning to organise large bodies of people behind mass movements working for well defined social and economic ends, usually laid out in a manifesto or campaign pledges. It takes a lot of planning and involves mobilising millions of people.

If there is a spectrum with news at one end and serious, mass movement politics at the other, all the exhibits in this show are at the news end.

Moreover, when it comes to the use of video as a medium, the movement of news reporting away from newspapers and magazines, and its dominance by television coverage, has been one of the notable aspects of the past fifty years (with much lamentation from old-school journalists). Flashy footage of missiles taking off or people rioting has, during my lifetime, replaced the more sober analysis of events which you used to get in newspapers and news magazines. (They still exist, obviously, but their readerships have steadily declined.)

In this respect too – by virtue of the simple fact that all four entries consisted almost entirely of video footage – the Turner Prize hasn’t become more political – it has become more like the news.

Therefore, for what it’s worth, in my opinion this year was not particularly political. It was intensely newsy. It made big headlines with tricksy and inventive ways of covering essentially ephemeral stories.

In fact, even as news, the stories fall short.

The subjects tackled in these videos may epitomise long-running political issues – American police are racist, refugees have a hard time, the Israeli security forces can get away with killing unarmed Arabs – but none of these stories actually is news. They are the opposite of news. They are in fact very old stories. They were well-established tropes when I was growing up in the 1970s.

Given all this, you could sum up the Turner Prize exhibition as a selection of yesterday’s news.

Even though there are good moments in all the presentations, even though Thompson’s hauntingly silent black victims, or Forensic Architecture’s amazingly detailed and techno-savvy reconstructions, or Naeem Mohaiemen’s airport man or Charlotte Prodger’s standing stones all have their moments – there’s something about the medium of video itself which feels insubstantial, cheap, and unrewarding.

It may be all-consuming while you watch it — but then is almost immediately forgotten. Just like the TV news. Watch it, be horrified by this, scandalised by that, chuckle at the final comedy item, go to bed – forget all about it.

Prodger’s very personal film was the exception, so maybe that’s why she won. Footage of beautiful Scottish scenery. Footage of her cat. Footage of a sea ferry. All shot very badly with her fingers over the lens half the time. Edited deliberately clumsily. And with a voiceover telling us identity is flexible and fluid and that people have to be free to express themselves.

Maybe it was the very familiarity of these tropes which made the piece seem so already-seen, like a hundred other home-made art-school efforts lecturing us about queer identity – which gave the judges such a reassuring sense of familiarity. The stretches of it which I watched were certainly very restful.

Videos of the four finalists

There are short videos devoted to each of the four finalists.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Forensic Architecture

Luke Willis Thompson

Charlotte Prodger

A brief promo video for the whole show.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River by Joseph Conrad (1895)

Reading Joseph Conrad after Edgar Rice Burroughs is like leaving a cheap disco and walking into a quiet church. Or maybe an ornate eastern temple… You can feel the civilisation, the depth and human dignity, pouring through every cell in your body…

Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel. Born in 1857 to Polish parents in a part of the Ukraine administered by the Russian Empire, Józef Teodor Conrad Korzeniowski left home to join the French merchant marine in 1874, aged 17. In 1886 he earned his Master’s certificate in the British Merchant Service, becoming a British Citizen, and anglicising his name to Joseph Conrad. His next few years of service took him to the Malay Archipelago, the Gulf of Siam and the Belgian Congo. It was for the Societe Anonyme pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo in 1890 that Conrad first visited the ‘dark continent’ and wrote the ‘Congo Diary’ that would later become The Heart of Darkness.

The harsh conditions of travelling to the Congo Free State and working on a paddle-steamer aggravated Conrad’s already fragile health. He suffered from gout and depression and returned to England weakened and suffering from fever and was hospitalised. In 1894, aged 37, he signed off from his last ship and devoted himself to completing the novel he’d been working at since 1889.

Plot The Dutchman Kaspar Almayer settles on the bank of the river Pantei on the Borneo coast. Trade fails. The pirate Lingard promises him money if he will marry a young girl, only survivor of a pirate massacre Lingard was involved in. Almayer marries her on the understanding that Lingard will share some of the gold and treasure he plans to accumulate. but Lingard’s plans come to nothing and Almayer sinks into a depression, continually outwitted at trade and strategy by the neighbouring Arab and Muslim traders. His wife gives him a daughter, Nina, then settles into sullen antagonism. Nina is sent to convent school in Singapore and returns a beautiful young woman, who is immediately wooed both by the nephew of the Rajah of the river, and by a dashing Brahmin, Dain Maroola, who arrives out of nowhere and, once again, promises the gullible Almayer riches and wealth.

This wooing is the climax of the novel, all the rest having been scene-setting, for it turns out Dain is smuggling gunpowder, but he is betrayed, attacked and pursued by a Dutch warship, back to Almayer’s compound, where all concerned must make some life-changing choices!

The story is slender but spooled out in a long lazy meandering fashion which moves backwards and forwards in time. Is this clumsy, or a crafty emulation of the forward and backward rhythm of the great river upon which the novel is set?

Characters Deceptively slight (167 pages) and simple, the story follows the same characters over quite a long period, well over 20 years, and Conrad depicts them at different moments of their lives, giving detailed descriptions of their characters and psychological motivations:

  • Kaspar Almeyer, the (Dutch) middle-aged white failed trader gone to seed and living off pathetic dreams
  • Lingard the English pirate who persuades him to marry the Malay girl survivor of a pirate battle in exchange for riches which never materialise
  • the Malay girl who bears him a daughter and then sinks into contemptuous sloth
  • Abdulla the pious and successful old Arab who dominates trade along the river
  • Lakamba, the Malay ‘rajah’ of the river, who conspires with Abdulla to monopolise the trade and keep Almayer down
  • Dain Maroola, the handsome young Malay prince who falls deeply in love with Nina
  • Nina, the young woman whose passionate love for Dain stands at the heart of the novel and who is forced to choose between “savage” love and “civilised” hypocrisy.

The river Almayer’s folly is built at the confluence of two branches of the mighty Pantei river, enormous muddy brown, swollen by monsoon floods, which dominates the imagery of the book and whose slow, impassive, endless rolling symbolises the heedless unfolding of Time, careless of all human activity. (The centrality of the river again anticipating ‘Heart of Darkness’).

Style Two points:

  • Conrad doesn’t quite write standard English. His sentences are long, lush with unnecessary adjectives and disconcerting with askew phraseology. The first publisher’s readers worried about his frequent infelicities and errors of grammar or phraseology; but Unwin decided, correctly, that they actively helped make Conrad a unique and poetic stylist.
  • Conrad brings to his writing an unashamedly European sensibility, especially when it comes to describing big negative emotions, despair, futility, collapse. Completely unlike the stiff upper lip style of, say, Haggard or Kipling, when a firm handshake says all that needs saying.

The following excerpt from chapter 5 shows Conrad’s long sentences, his lush description of tropical scenery, his un-English phraseology, and his un-English nihilism:

He stood up attentive, and the boat drifted slowly in shore, Nina guiding it by a gentle and skilful movement of her paddle.  When near enough Dain laid hold of the big branch, and leaning back shot the canoe under a low green archway of thickly matted creepers giving access to a miniature bay formed by the caving in of the bank during the last great flood.  His own boat was there anchored by a stone, and he stepped into it, keeping his hand on the gunwale of Nina’s canoe.  In a moment the two little nutshells with their occupants floated quietly side by side, reflected by the black water in the dim light struggling through a high canopy of dense foliage; while above, away up in the broad day, flamed immense red blossoms sending down on their heads a shower of great dew-sparkling petals that descended rotating slowly in a continuous and perfumed stream; and over them, under them, in the sleeping water; all around them in a ring of luxuriant vegetation bathed in the warm air charged with strong and harsh perfumes, the intense work of tropical nature went on: plants shooting upward, entwined, interlaced in inextricable confusion, climbing madly and brutally over each other in the terrible silence of a desperate struggle towards the life-giving sunshine above—as if struck with sudden horror at the seething mass of corruption below, at the death and decay from which they sprang.

Civilisation and savagery The word ‘savage’ is used 35 times in the text, harshly to describe Almayer’s Malay wife and half-caste daughter, Nina. It would be easy to object to the racism implicit in its use, except that the entire novel highlights the dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism – solely to question and undermine it.

Here, in his first novel, Conrad raises the issue he will pursue for years, and which is crystallised in his most famous work, Heart of Darkness (1899). The Western world of his day made a shibboleth of the distinction between the superior, white, advanced races, and the rest – the various forms of ‘savage’ or ‘semi-savage’ dark-skinned peoples; and yet Conrad thought he had seen through it; realised that beneath the veneer of ‘civilisation’ the white man was the same godless animal as the brown, driven by the same primal fears and greeds, and capable – as in Heart of Darkness – of far worse atrocities. It is the ‘savage’ Dain who behaves nobly, it is the ‘savage’ Nina whose love is depicted as pure and constant as Juliet or any Victorian heroine.

Conrad, unprotected by the insulating imbecilities of the English public school system, brings to the unsettling realities of the colonisation of the remote parts of the earth a palette of Slavic pessimism and European existentialist philosophy. Result: Conrad the man tried to commit suicide in his 20s, and then used his writing as therapy to exorcise his vision of decay and despair in book after book after book, bringing order to his chaotic feelings by rehearsing them again and again in long French sentences.

Compare and contrast with Kipling, thoroughly innoculated and imbued with the pukkah certainties of the English public school system (see Stalky and Co.), who sometimes writes about white men going bad, and the strange horrors encountered in colonial life – and with, admittedly, a genuinely eerie impact – but always, ultimately, from the outside, uncontaminated by Doubt, as the laureate of Empire and white racial superiority.

Steady on, old chap Conrad was careful not to write about the Empire of the British, his adopted nation, among whom he wanted to be accepted and a success; his first stories all concern Dutch colonisers and traders who experience alienation, failure and despair, thus neatly leaving us Brits off the hook. Good chap!


Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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