Author Carl Hiaasen is stuck in the swamp.
It's not that the south Florida native can't imagine setting his satires about greed and crime in other locales. It's just that the 48-year-old Miami Herald columnist and former investigative reporter realizes that his soggy state is a moldy gold mine for fiction.
"The mutant quotient is quite high," he says. "There's a general sense of depravity -- Florida attracts scoundrels. If you have cash in your pocket, nobody asks any questions."
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That reality was reinforced by the chad-happy presidential election recount and the revelation that many of the September 11 terrorists had lived in Florida.
Tourist Season, Hiaasen's first novel, came out in 1986 and championed the cause of Sunshine State eco-freaks using alligators -- rubber and real -- to kill off visiting Shriners and battle rampant overdevelopment. He's had no trouble finding targets ever since. Along the way, he seems to have spawned a closet industry of authors who dive into Gator State ooze.
"All of us owe our livelihood to John D. MacDonald," he explains. "The material's so rich, I don't want to take credit."
Still, his bucks from the muck have caught other writers' attention.
"A lot of people moved here and started to write about south Florida. These kinds of novels aren't that difficult to write, providing you have a sufficient level of guilt and angst."
For example, the faded hero of his novel Skin Tight is a weatherbeaten former investigator named Stranahan who seeks refuge in a watery stilt house (much like MacDonald's private eye, Travis McGee). The reluctant hero is forced to spear a hitman with a stuffed marlin's head and to confront a crooked plastic surgeon who revels in Florida's skin-festering sun and has shaky reasons for performing shaky-handed surgery. And while the crooked doc may be a bit exaggerated, the booming flesh-flaying industry in the state is not, with Northerners flocking for their tummy tucks in January, hoping to heal in time for spring.
Hiaasen concedes that such morality tales are not unique to Florida. "Weird stuff happens everywhere," he says. "There's no shortage of crooked pols and cons. I'm sure everyone in Colorado is familiar with land grabs."
Nonetheless, he finds inspiration in his surroundings. "I feel I can write from the viewpoint of the aggrieved and the angry," he says. "I stay here because my day job's here." Hiaasen has worked at the Herald for nearly three decades; his columns retain a true-life bite as he singles out the powerful who take advantage of the landscape.
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Yet it is through fiction that he finds his true release. "It's like psychotherapy for me," he admits. "It's necessary."
And Hiaasen's not afraid to gnaw on the corporate hand that has fed him for decades: His ninth novel, Basket Case, which was published last month by Knopf, tracks the case of a fallen muckraker who sees the mysterious drowning death of a rocker as an opportunity to revive his own reporting career, if only he can out-maneuver a profit-crazed newspaper owner.
Although one of his books, Strip Tease -- about an exotic dancer and assorted strip-club lowlifes -- became a Hollywood film, and there are scripts floating around for others, Hiaasen's biggest kick comes from stirring things up on a grassroots level. People end up rooting for his characters as they fight back regarding issues such as overdevelopment.
"I get letters from people who say they're going to take action, to start attending local zoning meetings and speaking up," he said. "I want people to get mad, stay mad and raise hell."