Arts » Books

Bad to the Bone

Part rant, part rave, pure Hiaasen


Poor Joey Perrone. She realizes just seconds after her husband grabs her ankles and heaves her over the side of the cruise ship Sun Duchess that her suspicions have been correct and she made a big mistake. That mistake was marrying Dr. Charles Regis "Chaz" Perrone, the world's worst biologist. We soon learn the handsome and self-absorbed Chaz's photo should be in the dictionary to illustrate the definition of "dick for brains."

Carl Hiaasen's novels are always part laugh out loud funny, part cringing reality and part rant about the deplorable environmental state of South Florida. Hiaasen deftly sets up the destruction of the Everglades as an integral part of the plot and still spends plenty of time developing the characters.

We root for Joey from the minute Chaz grabs her ankles. One of Chaz's many mistakes was forgetting that his wife was a champion swimmer in college. She turns her fall into a dive and survives. Vietnam vet, former state investigator and semi-hermit Mick Stranahan finds her naked, desperately clinging to a bale of Jamaican marijuana, and saves her. Stranahan was the principal character in an earlier, also crisply written Hiaasen book, Skin Tight. (That's the one with the plastic surgeon and the hit man named Chemo.)

Joey decides not to go to the cops; she knows what a charming con man Chaz can be and feels she'd just lose in court -- especially if there were women on the jury. What she really wants to know is why Chaz tried to kill her, especially since their pre-nup keeps him from getting at her hefty bankroll. So she convinces Mick to help her drive Chaz crazy and, hopefully, find out. Mick, as Skin Tight fans will remember, has a talent for driving people crazy. What Joey and Mick don't realize is that Chaz, the state-employed biologist, is in the pocket of one of the worst of the Everglades' polluters and is paranoid about being found out.

Even though you root for Joey, you wonder why she married this guy, especially when Hiaasen sets him up as such a bastard -- and stupid to boot. Chaz, who thinks nature is "all hot, buggy, funky-smelling and treacherous," is also beyond obsessed with sex, particularly his own sexual performance (his favorite song, of course, is "Bad to the Bone" by George Thorogood). In fact, the weakness of this book is that Hiaasen clearly had such fun creating this utterly despicable guy that the reader spends more time getting to know the self-absorbed Chaz than any of the other characters.

Hiaasen's supporting cast of interesting, flamboyant characters saves the day. First there's Karl Rolvaag, the police detective assigned to investigate Joey's disappearance from the Sun Duchess. He's certain that Chaz killed Joey but, like her, he can't figure out why. A Midwesterner, Rolvaag hates the climate in South Florida. He also has two pythons for pets, much to the consternation of his elderly neighbors.

Then, in the tradition of Chemo from Skin Tight, there's Tool. Earl Edward O'Tool is a hairy man-mountain who collects the roadside crosses that people use to mark and memorialize loved ones who've died in automobile accidents. Tool is dispatched by corporate farmer Red Hammernet to babysit Chaz after the "tragedy." Hammernut is the real villain here as it's the fertilizer runoff from his farms that's causing so much damage to what is left of the Everglades.

Rounding out the cast are Ricca, Chaz's hairdresser and main girlfriend, and Corbett Wheeler, Joey's brother, who raises sheep in New Zealand. Corbett arrives in Florida just in time to help Joey and Mick finish driving Chaz over the edge.

Despite the fact that the entire plot is pretty apparent from the beginning, Hiaasen throws in a surprise or two, as usual, and generally keeps the reader interested and guessing about just how Joey will wreak more havoc in Chaz's already precariously balanced life. Half the fun here, though, is watching Chaz screwing up considerably all on his own.

Early reviews noted that the book seems to end in the middle of a scene. As a longtime Hiaasen fan, the ending, though ambiguous, didn't bother me. In fact, I liked it better than the epilogues he's used in some previous books, where everything is wrapped up just a little too neatly -- especially in books so filled with wonderful chaos and the wisdom of weirdness.

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