The mystery writer John D. MacDonald once crafted a pretty good rule of thumb to explain why environmentalists will never catch up to the developers in Florida.
It works like this: You move to the Sunshine State and everything looks beautiful. That lasts about five years, in which time the place has been altered, developed, and ravaged just enough to make you mad. It’s not the same! So you swing into action and start fighting back against those forces bent on despoiling your paradise. What that means, though, according to MacDonald, is that the developers are always five years ahead of you. I think that explains the state of things in Florida about as well as anything.
There’s a corollary rule: After about 10 years, you either give up and think about moving away, or you dig in for the long haul. I made it for 13 years before pulling up stakes, and while environmental issues weren’t what drove me away, I have to say that I wasn’t sorry to see Florida in the rearview mirror. I also felt guilty, though, because leaving felt like giving up. But at the time I was so pessimistic that the notion of staying and fighting just seemed like an empty gesture.
That’s why I admire people like Carl Hiaasen so much. Hiaasen was born in Florida, he’s lived and worked there all his life, and as long as he’s drawing breath, he’s going to fight to save what’s left of his native state. Hiaasen is one of the good guys.
He’s also a terrific novelist. Like Mark Twain, he is a writer fueled by rage, and like Twain, he’s never lost his sense of humor.
He’s also a fine stylist. His sentences are so transparent that you’re never aware of them. That’s the hardest kind of writing I know.
But if Hiaasen were none of those things, if all he had ever done was to create the character of Skink, that would be enough.
Hiaasen doesn’t have a series detective like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. But in numerous novels he’s brought Skink back. A 6-foot-6 swamp rat with nine lives and one good eye, Skink’s real name is Clinton Tyree. He’s supposedly a former Florida governor who one day decided he’d had all he could stand of crooked politicians and developers and walked off the job. Ever since he’s been at large and living off the land, a one-man army doing whatever it takes to safeguard the land, the water, and anything with fins, fur, or feathers. He even has his own Wikipedia page.
A never-ending parlor game among Hiaasen fans involves trying to figure out exactly which Florida governor might have inspired this eco-warrior. Lawton Chiles? Reuben Askew? Leroy Collins? Hiaasen insists that it’s none of the above and no one in particular. He’s quoted on a Florida State University website saying, “He’s a character I invented, because I wished there was somebody like him. Florida would have been a better place if there had been somebody like him. Skink has no resemblance whatsoever to any politician I know.” Alas. But at least he’s there, like the late Edward Abbey’s anarchic character George Washington Hayduke, to inspire the rest of us to grow a spine.
Hayduke, it’s worth noting, was inspired by a real person, Doug Peacock, who contributes occasionally to The Daily Beast and to whom, not coincidentally, Hiaasen has dedicated his latest novel, Skink—No Surrender, which will be published next week.
Skink—No Surrender is being sold as a Young Adult novel, and it reminds me all over again that I really don’t get the whole idea of YA. True, the story contains no sex scenes and no swearing, and its protagonists, other than Skink, are two plucky teenagers. And yes, there are a couple of rather melodramatic chapter endings, such as, “Time had run out for Malley’s kidnapper. Or so I thought.” Otherwise it’s just a new (slightly shorter) Carl Hiaasen novel, and a good one at that. Adults can enjoy it, and so can kids. But you can say the same thing about almost any of John Grisham’s novels. So why not just call it a novel?
The story opens with 15-year-old Richard discovering Skink on a Florida beach, where he’s buried himself in what looks a sea turtle’s nest in order to catch a poacher. Before long the teenager and the old man are off to search for Richard’s cousin, Malley, who’s run away with a man she met in an online chat room.
The search ends on a Panhandle river that contains an enormous alligator and whose banks are home to the feral pigs descended from the swine introduced to Florida by Hernando de Soto. There’s also a climactic fight aboard a houseboat that will suggest to some in the audience that if the creep who kidnaps Malley ever managed to get a little older, he’d be the spitting image of Cape Fear’s Max Cady.
Along the way, Skink tries unsuccessfully to interest Richard in the culinary delights of roadkill, but has better luck selling his young companion on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He also teaches him how to drive. And with Skink as his guide, Richard discovers the pleasures of the unplugged life.
“We get so hooked on being connected 24/7 to our friends, our playlists, our tweets and Instagrams, whatever,” Richard says at one point in his narration. “The battery in our smartphone dies and it’s like somebody shut off the oxygen to our brain. Where’s my charger? I can’t find my stupid charger! Mom, drop everything and take me to Radio Shack!”
You may say this is aimed at teens, but I know plenty of adults who could profit from the lessons Richard learns while searching for his cousin.
As exciting as Richard and Malley’s exploits are, the book really belongs to Skink, the “true hero of the rescue,” as Richard puts it, and “one of the coolest old farts ever.”
Indeed he is, and nowhere more admirable or enchanting than when dressing down Malley’s captor: “Son, you’ve chosen the proverbial dead-end highway. Anyone who takes pot shots at a lovely wading bird is a hopeless defective, in my view, an evolutionary mistake. There’s a natural order to what happens to you next, an inevitable conclusion to all this low villainy.”
More inevitable in stories than in real life, perhaps, but pretty to think so all the same. And anyone, real or made up, who uses the phrase “low villainy” in a sentence—that man is my hero.