A farce with environmental flavor

Skinny Dip - Carl Hiaasen

How to categorize this book? It’s not a mystery – although it starts with a murder. It’s not a police procedural, although a policeman is trying to make the case against the murderer throughout the book. It’s not a romance, although it ends with a ‘happily-ever-after’. It’s not a comedy, although absurdities pile up on the pages. I’d call it a farce with environmental flavor.

In the beginning, the antagonist, biologist Chaz Perrone, pitches his wife Joey overboard from a cruise ship. He is happy with the deed done well, but unfortunately for him, Joey survives. The rest of the book is dedicated to Joey taking revenge on her inept murderer of a husband. She is also trying to figure out why he decided to murder her.

The plot line is preposterous to the point of crazy, but the value of this novel doesn’t reside in the plot, it is in the characters. They are diverse and colorful, especially the bad ones.

The antagonist Chaz is a tangle of contradictions. One moment, he is a sleek confident liar, the next – a slimy, soulless prick, cowardly but sly. Everyone holds him in contempt, his ‘friends’ and enemies alike, but somehow, his overworking sense of self-preservation always helps him to end up on top, not exactly winning but not really losing either, just biding his time. Pathetic as a villain, he is nonetheless frightening in his sordid venality – and for the lowest possible price. This self-admiring worm is the best-defined character in the novel, the focal point of the action. Every twist of the plot revolves around him.       

Chaz’s partners in crime include his employer Red, a corrupt and ruthless owner of vegetable farms, and Red’s goon Tool, a hirsute ape of a man, whose conscience is stirring unexpectedly.

On the positive side, there is a Norwegian detective Rolvaag, superbly honest and tenacious like a bulldog but slightly eccentric: he keeps pythons as pets. A loner Mike is also one of the good guys. A former policeman and Joey’s savior, he is the one who fished her out of the sea. He helps her with her vengeance scheme and generally plays the role of a knight in tarnished armor.  

And then there is Joey. She should be the protagonist, she almost got killed in the beginning of the story, but she is somewhat fuzzy as a character. Actually, all the female characters are fuzzy in this novel, as opposed to the male characters, each one with his sharply defined personality and quirky history.         

The story is unevenly paced, sometimes galloping, sometimes crawling. Too many back stories slow down the action, and I wondered why the author included them. They are not really relevant to the proceedings. They are funny though, but for some reason, I didn’t laugh, not even once. I suspect a screwball comedy isn’t for me, although the juxtaposition of a petty criminal and the huge evil of his crime – murder, even unsuccessful – felt intriguing. I definitely wanted to know the resolution of this cat’s cradle of lies and subplots.  

The setting, Everglades, Florida, plays a major role in this book. The author obviously loves its endless marches and abundant wildlife, and the entire book reads as a tribute to Everglades.

Overall – a ridiculous but absorbing read. I enjoyed it.