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Not So Sweet Revenge

Carl Hiaasen's latest needs more passion

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Who hasn't fantasized about getting back at those telemarketers who call you in the middle of dinner or way too early on Saturday morning?

Carl Hiaasen gets that revenge in his latest novel about life in Florida, Nature Girl. Or at least his heroine does, after a fashion. Honey Santana, single mom and the "nature girl" of the title, plots revenge on the hapless telemarketer who calls her a skank during their rather heated conversation. Honey, who has a low tolerance for incivility anyway, relentlessly tracks down Boyd Eisenhower, discovering along the way that Eisenhower is not his real name (no one at Relentless, Inc., uses their real last names since research showed people were more likely to trust someone with the same last name as a U.S. president). Of course, Boyd Shreave (his real name) isn't the smartest guy in the world (wonder why I kept seeing the face of George W. Bush?), and he falls for Honey's own telemarketing ploy that involves a free "ecotour" trip to Florida. Boyd jumps at the chance to prove to his co-worker and mistress, Eugenie Fonda, that he's the kind of man who takes risks.

Honey, her son, Fry, and her ex-husband, Perry Skinner, live in an area of Florida that's still fairly wild and remote, the Ten Thousand Islands. On his Web site, Hiaasen says: "It's one of the few remaining places that haven't been wrecked by development; a truly raw wilderness. I spend a fair amount of time fishing in that area, and it's just breathtakingly vast and remote. Luckily, it's also a mangrove jungle where the mosquitoes are so thick that you literally inhale them. This discourages all but the hardiest (or dumbest) of tourists."

Honey wants to teach Boyd a lesson by taking him out into this wilderness. She refuses to believe that he may be a lost cause -- apparently this is the latest in a series of tangents for her -- and her level-headed son and ever patient ex are worried about her this time. Headed for a collision course with Honey and her "victim" is Sammy Tigertail, a half-Seminole, failed alligator wrestler, who has taken to the wilderness after a drunk tourist dies of a heart attack on his boat. Sammy, a good but confused soul, just wants to get away from everybody for a while and be a hermit.

I don't want to give away more of the plot, so I'll just say here that Nature Girl left me wanting more, Hiaasen addict that I am. But trust me, mediocre Hiaasen is way better than most of the dreck passing for novels these days, so Nature Girl is not entirely a lost cause.

In general, Hiaasen's books are usually populated with all kinds of odd characters. They move in and out of scenes as he deftly pretzel-twists the plot and subplots. At least one character learns a larger life lesson. However, Nature Girl has a couple of subplots that may have seemed like a good idea at the time but don't really further the story (Christian cultists dressed in bathrobes from the Maui Four Seasons with Klan-type hoods?).

What's good about this book is what's good about Hiaasen at his best: We believe him -- mostly -- even about the Christian cultists (I just don't think they added anything to this particular book) as well as another subplot involving Honey's sex-obsessed former boss, Louis Piejack.

Ever the good reporter, Hiaasen also gives us a history lesson on some of the Native American tribes that have inhabited Florida, particularly the Seminole. And he makes us laugh. Many of his asides are as crisp and punchy as ever -- here's Piejack thinking about Honey: "Piejack comprehended that this was a woman who wouldn't settle easily into the role of obedient homemaker-slash-sex slave. He'd have to battle for every lousy feel, and she was strong enough to make him pay with blood. Piejack knew a Key West shrimper who'd gotten himself into the same sort of fix, with an Internet bride from the Philippines. Three nights into the honeymoon, the girl had pinned his scrotum to the mattress with a cocktail fork, then set fire to the motel room. Piejack shuddered at the thought."

Despite his misgivings, Piejack pursues Honey as single-mindedly as any developer looking for vacant land in Florida. Like this character or not, he stands out because of his passion, misdirected though it is.

Perhaps that's what is missing here: the depth of passion. Hiaasen has written so eloquently in the past about the environment and about the effects of corporate over-development that this relatively simple story about telemarketers and revenge doesn't seem to adequately convey the passion we've come to expect.

If you're already a Hiaasen fan, read Nature Girl to satisfy your addiction. If you've never read Hiaasen, start with one of the early titles like Tourist Season, Skin Tight or Native Tongue. Strip Tease is also great -- just don't rent the movie.

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